Satire Proves We Are All Blair’s Children
Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera is an entertaining satire but inadvertently reaffirms his outlook, Alexander Adams finds.
It was hard to gauge the makeup of the audience assembling for one of the last London performances of a satirical musical about Tony Blair. There were both middle-aged and elderly people in attendance, many of whom had lived through Blair's 1997-2007 premiership. For attendees in their twenties, Prime Minister Blair was at best only a patchy childhood memory. Politically, the audience was heterogeneous, with more than a few having initially heartily endorsed Blair, now harbouring mixed feelings about the man. As it turned out, the writers of this amusing and fast-paced musical were also divided in their views about the subject.
Catchy and Energetic
About to commence a nationwide tour, Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera tells the story of Blair up to his departure from power in 2007. Co-written by veteran comedian Harry Hill (with a long list of successes since the 1990s) and composer-lyricist Steve Brown (Dead Ringers, Spend Spend Spend), the two-hour show features a live band, in addition to a generous cast of characters and chorus.
Tony! is part of the British theatre's recovery from the calamity of the COVID-19 lockdown. Initially planned for a 2021 debut, the show opened a year later. There were a few mask-wearers at the performance I attended, which were likely political gestures, as I can't imagine anyone truly worried about contracting COVID-19 volunteering to spend two hours in a basement with 400 people.
The show races through Blair's early life, pausing when he arrives at Oxford. There, he encounters ally-cum-rival, Gordon Brown, and they engage in a tussle over who gets the top bunk in the hall of residence. Naturally, Tony gets priority, with the promise that he will eventually relinquish it… eventually.
Jack Whittle does an excellent job in his portrayal of the charming ingenue seeking stardom, first as a rock singer for the student band Ugly Rumours and later as a politician. His youthfulness is ideal for the early scenes as a rockstar wannabe, but he is not quite as convincing in the second half as the embattled warmonger. The show’s songs are catchy and energetic, brought to life splendidly by the cast—which has more women than one might expect in a political drama–although the up-tempo approach makes the pacing somewhat relentless.
It was a mistake on the part of the writers to include the ill-fated Sheffield rally in the show. Held on the eve of the 1992 general election, this embarrassing spectacle featured leader Neil Kinnock whooping up a Labour victory in a fake American accent, only for the party to be defeated the following day. While an amusing anecdote in hindsight, it distracts from the Blair story and prevents us from seeing more of Blair in power. That time might have been better spent later in the show scrutinising the unending spin and focus-group polling that dominated the policy directives of New Labour.
Tori Burgess makes an outstanding Cherie Blair (Booth), a ruthless and sexually voracious Scouser with ambitions to reach for the stars. She is an ambitious Lady MacBeth to her husband's indecisive MacBeth. In one of the funniest scenes, she persuades a smitten Blair about the virtues of socialism during vigorous intercourse. Phil Sealey provides an uncanny caricature of Gordon Brown and also doubles as Saddam Hussain, waggling a cigar in a Groucho Marx-style "I Never Did Anything Wrong" routine. One of the most memorable moments is when Brown waxes lyrical about macroeconomics, with his trousers around his ankles.
The doubling of parts works to the musical's success, as Howard Samuels takes on the parts of a louche Machiavellian Peter Mandelson, a thuggish Alistair Campbell, and a bloodthirsty Dick Cheney, eliding the three dark figures into one archetype of an evil aide. Having the slight-statured Robin Cook played by the diminutive Sally Cheng proves to be a good move; it makes her boasts of her priapic successes all the more incongruous and bizarre.
David Blunkett, the blind Home Secretary with his stuffed guide dog, also makes an appearance, but Jack Straw does not. There are obvious omissions, but as the focus is firmly on Blair's wars, most domestic subjects are completely overlooked. This is because Hill and Brown consider the Iraq war to be the downfall of Blair, indicating an absence of truly cutting analysis. Going against popular feeling was worse, the show argues, than the principles behind such action.
Inadvertently Following Blair
Although Tony! can be recommended as a good night out, if you are looking for a biting critique you will be disappointed. Most criticism of Blair's administration rests upon foreign policy: Blair is beguiled into a "war on terror" pushed by hawkish President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. To the writers' credit, they mention Blair's initiation of limited military interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone preceding the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but this is undercut by the overall portrayal of the Americans as puppet masters and Blair as their poodle, underlined by the slide of a poodle in Union-Jack apparel. Although the musical is sharp-witted, it is not subtle, and this liberal critique is crystallised in the climax of the musical.
‘The World Is Run by Assholes’ is Blair's apologia, wherein he admits culpability for errors and misdeeds—though the writers don't explicitly specify this. In his defence, he scoffs at the fact that everyone else is just as bad. Then follows a set of provoking images of oppressive leaders, from Assad and Erdogan to Kim Jong Un. This implies that if Blair had just been a bit nicer and less gullible, then the damage of his actions wouldn't have tarnished his legacy. Nonetheless, Blair's foreign militarism stemmed from a technocratic mindset; this entailed neutering all unapologetically nationalist regimes that resisted Western hegemony and opposed the imposition of managerial democracy, egalitarianism, human rights, modest redistribution of wealth and centralised economies co-ordinated on an international scale. His wars were not mistakes; instead, they were the imposition (by force) of an agenda he could have peacefully implemented domestically.
Tony Blair has so thoroughly shaped the discourse of our time that even his critics seem to have adopted his ideas. When there is a crowd-pleasing dig at Putin for being the world’s biggest “asshole” leader, the writers (perhaps unwittingly) have taken the Blair position: namely, if any nationalist leader is willing to reject American progressivism, defy NATO, and act to protect his nation’s interests through force, he needs to be mocked, disciplined or toppled. Blair would be proud of Hill and Brown. They—like us—are Blair’s children.
Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera is currently touring Great Britain. Performance dates are here.