Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera, is a gig concert musical theatre show, that sets out to tell the life story of the former British Prime Minister, and is described by the producers as a ‘reckless reappraisal’.
Just in case you can’t recall the 1990s and early 2000s, Tony Blair led ‘New Labour’ to a landslide election victory in 1997, ending 18 years of Conservative rule.
The framing device for this show begins with us at an unknown future time, with Blair (Jack Whittle) on his death bed, and revisiting major moments in his life.
We immediately skip back to his birth, in a scene which sets the tone, and the humour level, for much of what is to follow. If you go to see this show, and you hate it by this point, your opinion probably isn’t going to improve as the piece continues.
As we travel through Blair’s formative years, the life milestones come thick and fast, but there’s nothing that could not be discovered from reading his Wikipedia page.
Indeed, this is the fundamental problem with this show – there’s nothing here we don’t know. From the ‘Granita dinner’ incident, to the ‘People’s Princess’ moment, this is presented as a Greatest Hits of Blair’s political career.
Presented here in a 95-minute version of what was previously a longer show, there is no interval, although an indication of where one would have been remains. In the ‘second act’ we are presented with a retrospective of Blair’s involvement in a number of wars, but the whole sequence is played for laughs.
This is another problem – there is no light and shade – everything is presented as humorously as possible. There are no challenges which must be overcome – Blair’s path through life, and his ascendancy up the political ladder are all arranged by others,
What does come across is an impression that Blair may well have never made a decision for himself in his entire life: his parents, Cherie, Peter Mandelson, are all shown as being the people who give Blair interests, a family, and the political career.
Writing a biographical piece about a person who is still alive is always going to be a tricky choice. Laud them too greatly, and you appear sycophantic.
Criticise them excessively, and they may well choose to sue for defamation of character. Choosing neutrality, as here, makes for a story which is as bland as it is neutral. This can’t even be regarded as satire – nothing is biting enough.
Presented as a gig-concert, meaning the musicians are on stage behind the actors, the music is fine. The tunes are well written, with nothing too jarring, but this review is being written some 24 hours after the performance, and none of the songs were memorable enough to be causing ear-worms.
The cast of nine, with backing from a three-piece band, push their way through the songs, the dialogue and the caricatures of Labour’s front bench that wouldn’t look out of place in Spitting Image. They’re all committed to their various roles, and the business with David Blunkett’s dog is very funny.
Much of the rest is not funny, which is surprising, as the Book – that is, the story and dialogue – have been written by Harry Hill, who is incredibly funny in his well-observed stand-up routines.
Whether you like this or not may well depend on how you feel about musicals that ultimately romp along without making statements, and without having any underlying moral. Certainly a fair proportion of the audience did seem to be having a good time.
Far from being the reckless reappraisal promised, everything is played far too safely, resulting in an ultimately forgettable experience.
Tony Blair does definitively have an intriguing political legacy – but it’s not the story recounted here. The show would be stronger if it had any political conviction whatsoever. As it is, the show, like the man at the centre of it, appears to have none.
Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera, continues at the Edinburgh Fringe until 27th August
Feature Image Credit: Nicholson Green Productions Ltd.