Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] at Park Theatre – review
Harry Hill and Steve Brown's new musical comedy runs until 9 July
Timing is everything in comedy. At a point when the Prime Minister is being booed by royalists and politics feels as if it has stretched beyond satire, it seems odd to be sitting down to watch a comedy musical about the failings of Tony Blair, "Labour's most successful premier", as the opening song advises us.
However amiable this new show by Harry Hill and Steve Brown may be, it doesn't have anything new to add to the debate. With broad brush and in widely comic terms, it paints a picture of Blair as a buffoon who just wanted to be famous – like his hero "Mick Jaggers" – and thanks to his broad smile and ambitious wife ended up running the country. Then he meets George Bush, goes to war in Iraq and trashes his reputation.
So far, so very familiar. What Hill and Brown bring to the party is a wild and whirring humour that inevitably hits some of its targets – and a cartoonish desire to entertain which is powered by the energy of the cast.
The show, which begins with Blair's deathbed confession and then unfolds backwards through his life, is a combination of very Harry Hill type of silliness (there's a Neil/kneel joke about Kinnock, and a fight for the Labour leadership between Blair and Brown) and a more generic political sketch-based comedy.
It gets very bogged down in the second act (rather like its subject) in the politics of the Middle East and songs for Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein that aren't quite sharp enough, but before then there's been a clever Liverpudlian tango for Tony and Cherie, an ode to Macro Economics by Gordon Brown and a song and dance routine about the People's Princess (played with wide-eyed relish by Madison Swan).
The songs, which echo both Broadway and Gilbert and Sullivan are lyrically sharp (though not always entirely audible) and pass pleasantly enough. But they are not in themselves memorable and their targets are horribly obvious. Even the rousing final number which suggests that "The Whole Wide World is Run by Assholes" and contains a photograph of Vladimir Putin doesn't do anything to make the whole thing anything more than a pantomime.
Director Peter Rowe keeps the whole thing moving fast enough for us not to notice too much, and his cast (all dressed in New Labour suits and red ties and with deliberately terrible wigs) work hard. Charlie Baker doesn't look anything like Blair, but he catches his swagger and swift smile; Gary Trainor uses Brown's slow intake of breath as a punctuation when he sings. As Cherie, Holly Sumpton is never allowed to escape the clichés of a Lady Macbeth-like manipulator, but her timing is assured. Howard Samuels enjoys himself as Peter Mandelson, drawing the audience into his dastardly plans.
I suppose it's all good fun, but by the end I felt irritated by the show's sheer lack of sophistication. Hill and Brown's last musical was the recklessly over-ambitious I Can't Sing!, a spoof of The X Factor, that failed to fill the Palladium. Perhaps that made them decide to settle for the smaller scale. But the same lack of purpose that scuppered their first effort undermines this one. It adds nothing to the arguments around Blair and its enthusiasm isn't enough to carry it through.