We all know that theatre is a great way of providing escapism so what better way to escape the infuriating news about our corrupt Prime Minister than with a show about... another, shall we say, divisive figure from the past residents of Downing Street.
Written by comedian and TV presenter Harry Hill and his long-time collaborator Steve Brown, Tony! First being seen as part of last years MTFest, it is now being staged in its entirety for the first time at Park Theatre and marks Harry Hills return to theatre after the ill-fated and poorly received I Can't Sing. Telling the story of the former Labour leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair, this is a suitably madcap recap of a career plagued with questionable choices and controversy... all played out with light relief.
The lead role of Tony Blair is played by Charlie Baker who gives a suitably overstated performance as he grins his way through Tonys entire life from birth right up to death (despite the fact he's still alive). Impossible to dislike, Baker gives a commanding and charismatic performance in the role.
In her role of Cherie Blair, Holly Sumpton seems to be channelling Cilla Black instead, but as strange as it is, it works well with the chemistry between her and her husband flying off the stage. Another standout comes from Howard Samuels who is the closest thing the show has to a narrator as Peter Mandelson. Camping it up like he is in his very own panto, his time on stage is among the highlights of the entire production.
The remainder of the cast perform multiple roles, effectively and amusingly changing with the use of a new wig or a fake moustache. Madison Swan gets a repeat cameo as Princess Diana in what is undoubtedly the best portrayal of her on stage in the last twelve months, Gary Trainor is simply perfect as Gordon Brown and Rosie Strobel gets some of the biggest laughs despite a one-note approach to John Prescott. Directed by Peter Rowe, the staging is minimalistic with a great use of versatile props including a great Mary Poppins moment (not the only musical reference on show if you look closely enough).
The songs, written by Steve Brown, are a mixed bag. While billing itself as a rock opera, it tends to move around into varied territory. While some numbers are forgettable, others plant themselves into your head in true earworm fashion, with Saddam Hussein's big solo number 'I Never Did Anything Wrong' (There's a sentence I thought I'd never say) and the rousing spectacular finale (the title of which I won't spoil here) showing moments of brilliance.
While Harry Hill has had far more success with his wacky TV shows, you might have expected him to learn from his mistakes with I Can't Sing. It disappoints me to confirm Tony! is indeed more of the same from him. Harrys tried and tested formula just doesn't work on stage as well as it does on TV meaning what you are left with are childish jokes, recurring gags that get progressively worse and punchlines that fall flat. It's fair to say the book is the worst part of this production - sluggish, messy and with real pacing problems, it feels at times like it is still a workshop as opposed to a fully fleshed out production. While I am not someone who is easily offended, some of the jokes were in real bad taste with far too many references to celebrities who were later found out to be sex offenders. Tonally, the piece is all over the place too with a lot of the humour seemingly designed to appeal to children... but with the odd four letter word thrown in for good measure.
it's fair to say Tony! is a real love it or hate it kind of show. Looking around the audience, I saw people in hysterics all the way through with grins permanently glued to their face (Perhaps they're relatives of the Blairs?) while others sat there, arms folded, with a face like a Labour leader after any election in the last 12 years. That is the beauty of theatre in its simplest form, how it can be so subjective and give two people two completely different experiences. While I wish I could say I fell into the former camp, I couldn't hope noticing its flaws, which was predominantly caused by the writing. While the cast were truly fantastic and there were several brilliant laugh out loud moments including some fantastic visual gags, this was as uneven a show as it gets. While it may not have been my personal cup of tea, it's still definitely worth seeing for a good laugh - just don't expect it to change the world.
Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] is playing at Park Theatre until July 9th. Tickets from www.parktheatre.co.uk
Photos by Mark Douet