Many unlikely historical figures have been the subject of rock operas – Sweeney Todd, Eva Peron, Jesus Christ – and former Prime Minister Tony Blair joins the list with Harry Hill’s and Steve Brown’s Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera. Comedian Harry Hill’s programme notes suggest it took him five years to persuade Steve Brown to write music and lyrics for his ‘piss-take’. Brown should have held out, and avoided association with this hot mess of a musical.
The actors did their best with the lame material. Jack Whittle as Tony Blair has some great comic timing, and managed to hold a rictus grin for most of the night. His face must hurt the next day. Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera does not fail as a piece of theatre because of the talents and enthusiasm of the cast. The ensemble is obviously talented, and boy can they sing. Martin Johnson as Neil Kinnock was positively operatic.
There are some sledgehammer caricatures of Gordon Brown by Phil Sealey, Robin Cook by Sally Cheng, and Rosie Strobel as John Prescott. Each was played as a cartoon – Gordon Brown gasping for breath, Prescott as blunt Northerner, Cherie Booth as Harry Enfield Scouser, Robin Cook as waspish philanderer, Emma Jay Thomas’s Princess Diana as a vampish seductress.
I would implore Peter Rowe, the director, to look again at the extremely problematic portrayal of Peter Mandelson. Howard Samuels gets his laughs for camping it up, but the line ‘call me Mandy’, with a Mandy tee-shirt to boot, ignores the homophobic origins of Mandelson’s nickname (giving an effeminate name to a gay man). Also, the scene when the Mandelson character bites the neck and drinks the blood of Tony Blair rings all kinds of loud alarm bells.
Funny regional accents, fright wigs, dropped trousers, swearing – all the stuff one might expect from a Sixth Form end of term review where the kids get to take the mickey out of their teachers. But is John Smith’s heart attack really something we want to see on stage? The actor clutches his arm and departs the stage, and we are meant to what? Laugh? It just reminded me of crying my eyes out. The same goes for the knowing jokey reference to Robin Cook’s ‘dodgy ticker’.
The problem is the animating premise that Tony Blair is a ‘cunt’ (and I am quoting from the libretto) and, as the final musical number reinforced, an ‘asshole’, the same as Pol Pot, Stalin, or Robert Mugabe. The underlying assumption that all political leaders are ‘assholes’ leads to Harry Hill’s book being crass, simple-minded, and like being shouted at by a Sixth Form Socialist Worker for two hours.
‘It’s not very subtle’ the woman sitting next to me muttered at the interval, but worse was to come. The second act revolves around the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, with bizarre musical numbers about gassing the Kurds by Saddam Hussein played as Groucho Marx, an appearance by the ghost of Diana and a bagpipe-playing Alistair Campbell. There are two references to Blair’s ‘four wars’, conflating the Nato-led liberation of Kosovo from the genocidal Milosevic, and the rescuing of Sierra Leone from the thugs of the Revolutionary United Front, after which Sierra Leoneans lionised Blair as their saviour.
There are a couple of inaccuracies: Kinnock did not say ‘we’re all right’ at a Labour Party conference, Brown wasn’t at Oxford University, Blair knew Michael Foot well after the Beaconsfield by-election (Hill and Brown have their character now knowing who Foot is), Blair is called a ‘billionaire’ when he is not (not to say he’s not worth a bob or two). Perhaps these can be dismissed as poetic licence.
There are omissions of facts that don’t fit the narrative. Tony and Cherie exit the stage to look after their ‘property portfolio’ with no mention of Booth’s distinguished legal career, or the Institute Blair established and which has performed great works across the world for a decade, or the huge donation of royalties from his best-selling autobiography to the Royal British Legion.
Even the staging was unsatisfactory. The theatre is a great venue for stand-up comedy, but the stage is low and the seating is on the flat, so that a couple of visual gags took place below the level of the heads of the audience. On tour in theatres, I guess this will not be such a problem. Also, there is no need whatsoever for loud thunderclaps at the start of both acts which, like the swearing, is presumably designed to shock and startle but is entirely unnecessary. I left the Leicester Square Theatre and into the West End night to walk off the fierce headache caused by two hours of unfunny noise.
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