Harry Hill’s new Tony Blair musical is a solid series of comedy sketches about the rise and fall of Labour’s most successful prime minister. It is not, however, a very good musical, largely because it provides such a bewilderingly unconvincing portrait of Blair.
Charlie Baker is perfectly fine in the perma-grinning title role, and clearly you expect a bit of artistic licence in a larky show written by a surrealist comic. But where Gary Trainor’s aggressively dour Gordon Brown, Howard Samuels’s scheming, fourth-wall-breaking Peter Mandelson, and Martin Johnston’s confused George W Bush fundamentally nail the essence of their characters, it’s simply not the case with the eponymous antihero of ‘Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera]’.
It ultimately trivialises every point it tries to make
Hill and his writing partner Steve Brown have written a show about an incredibly popular politician who shredded his reputation for the sake of an unpopular foreign war. Fair enough. But in portraying Blair as a wide-eyed, apolitical dunce who drifts into politics and similarly drifts into the Iraq War, it ultimately trivialises every point it tries to make. Yes, of course, it’s a silly show. But satire is meant to have a cutting edge. You sense Hill and Brown are not exactly fans of Blair, but he’s so dim here that ‘Tony!’ virtually exonerates him on grounds of diminished responsibility. It’s also episodic and rambling, with tangential numbers from Diana, Bin Laden and Saddam exacerbating its meandering, indulgent feel.
That accepted, it’s still pretty funny. Some of the humour is obvious but just really works (Samuels is extremely good value as the venomous Mandelson); some of it is startlingly brutal: there is gaspingly funny gag about John Smith’s tenure in charge of Labour. As a series of jokes most likely to appeal to people who remember the ’90s, it hits the spot.
Part of the problem is that its ambitions vastly outstrip its budget. Yes, a company of ten is never cheap. But Hill is a visual comedian. Whatever the faults of his and Brown’s previous musical, the legendary West End flop ‘I Can’t Sing!’, its vast budget made for a gloriously trippy cavalcade of weird and wonderful images. Peter Rowe’s production isn’t afraid to be funny about the fact it’s done on the cheap, with some aggressively lo-fi special effects raising a chuckle. Ultimately, though, it just looks cheap, and the Broadway-homaging musical numbers lack the visual or choreographic firepower that might have given these ho-hum tunes more polish.
I think Hill is basically on to something: Tony Blair would be the perfect subject for a musical or a drama. But even in a comedy, his journey from symbol of hope to virtual pariah is robbed of meaning if you off-handedly suggest he was an idiot who never understood what he was doing. Hill is a fine comedian, but he’s nowhere near a good enough dramatist to pull this off.