Tim Bale, Professor of Politics from the School of Politics and International Relations has written for 'The Conversation' on Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s 'Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera'
If you’re looking for subtlety and sophistication, Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera is probably not for you. It starts – literally – with a bang and careens through a hectic hour and a half of high-energy songs and skits.
The committed cast are happy to provide their audience with caricatures, as opposed to characters. John Prescott (Rosie Strobel) is portrayed as a professional northerner, Robin Cook (Sally Cheng) as a priapic ginger gnome, Cherie Blair (Tori Burgess) as a sharp-tongued Scouser – you get the picture.
Although the occasional joke misfires (blind David Blunkett walking into a door frame, really?) and some of the actors’ accents are as woeful as the deliberately dodgy wigs they whip on and off, it works on its own terms.
The music and the lyrics might not be that memorable, but the songs rhyme well. In the run up to the 1992 election, for example, Neil Kinnock (Martin Johnston) sings: “We’ve been waiting in the valleys, I’ve been storming it at rallies.” And Princess Diana’s fatal accident is neatly, if rather bluntly, summed up as “the chauffeur was smashed, no wonder he crashed”.
And they cohere nicely – perhaps even especially – when they stray beyond the bounds of good taste. Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein’s numbers (the latter done via a Groucho Marx impression) are a case in point.
The occasional cameos are particularly well done (Britpop’s Liam Gallagher was a favourite of mine), the impressively athletic choreography is basic but effective and one or two of the set pieces work particularly well. The momentous Granita deal (at which Brown was persuaded to give Blair a free run at the leadership in the wake of John Smith’s untimely death) is staged as a wrestling match complete with ropes and shiny leotards. Believe it or not, this actually conveyed what was allegedly discussed and agreed during that dinner pretty accurately.
So far, so good(ish), then. But there are some downsides. The most obvious is that in order to get most of the rock opera’s jokes, you probably had to be there – “there” being the 1990s and the early 2000s. Those under 50 might struggle to appreciate some of the political and cultural references, unless they’ve done or are doing a politics degree that covered the New Labour years.
Having not only lived through them but taught them, too, I had no trouble. But that didn’t mean I had no problems with the show.
First and foremost, it fell into the trap of inferring that Blair (Jack Whittle) was driven almost entirely by his love of the limelight. As a result, he is portrayed as an amoral airhead throughout – a puppet whose strings were pulled by Peter Mandelson (Howard Samuels).
In reality, I suspect even Blair’s toughest critics wouldn’t deny that his extraordinary powers of communication rested not just on his natural charisma but on a penetrating intelligence, too. Nor would they deny he was animated by a passion to do what – by his own lights anyway – was right.
Whether that sense of moral purpose (misguided or otherwise) deserted Blair once he left Downing Street and entered the shadowy world of high-paid, globetrotting consultancy is another story. But it’s a story that the authors (who were apparently determined not to write something too long) stop short of telling.
Other all too familiar tropes are much in evidence. Mandelson, who is effectively the narrator of the show, is predictably portrayed – albeit with considerable aplomb – as some sort of vampire or Mephistopheles. And by the same token, Cherie, although wonderfully played, is presented (not for the first nor, I suspect, the last time) as Lady Macbeth.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown comes over (very amusingly, as far as the audience were concerned) as a stereotypical angry Scotsman. Alastair Campbell, for good or ill, only gets a brief walk-on part, coming on, complete with kilt and bagpipes, after the ghost of Princess Diana has – bear with me – persuaded Blair to sex up the “dodgy dossier”.
My main gripe, however, was with the supposedly showstopping last number. Blair, not unreasonably, reminds the audience that 9.5 million of us voted him in for a third term, notwithstanding his decision to go to war in Iraq. The song that follows declares that “The whole wide world is led by assholes”, accompanied by pictures of a bunch of strongmen leaders from around the world.
To equate the UK’s prime minister, however little one may think of him, with the likes of Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad and Putin seems, to me at least, a category error. And, even if you disagree, the underlying message merely serves up more of the populist take on politics that, frankly, we could probably do with rather less of these days.
That said, if you happen to be in Liverpool for the Labour Party conference next week, don’t miss the chance to go see it at the city’s Playhouse. You might not love it, but there’s no way it won’t leave you laughing.
This article first appeared in 'The Conversation' on 9 October 2023.
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