FringeReview UK 2023
There’s no doubt this is an offbeat, brilliant, rude, absolutely necessary musical. Its acid test will come from younger Millennials and Zoomers. But then that’s the point: the winners rewrite history. History has just struck back, and it’s a blast.
Oli Jackson Music Director/Keys, David Guy (Guitar/Bass), Harry Bent (Drums)
Director Peter Rowe Set and Costume Libby Watson, Designer, Lighting Designer Mark Dymock, Sound Designer Richard Brooker, Choreographer Francesca Jaynes, Wig Designer Vanessa White, Musical Supervisor & Arranger Oli Jackson, Costume Supervisor Caroline Hannam, Casting Director Debbie O’Brien, Park Theatre Originating Theatre.
Till May 21st and touring
Harry Hill (Book) and Steve Brown (Music and Lyrics) provide quite a few back-coverings in the inside back cover: but stick firmly to their lawyers. Their musical Tony! directed by Peter Rowe starting its run at Leicester Square Theatre and touring till October, is a joyous riot: a relatively small-scale musical packing a punch like a real WMD.
That’s more cahones than Bush can count. Did I mention it’s far ruder? If F and once even C words aren’t your cup of cahones, well you don’t know Blair like these folk.
Melodies are catchy and crisply-written around the words. Clarity is impressive in the small space, though not everything’s ideally clear as yet in its initial run. Everything’s timed to a micro-second, sonance occasionally a little serrated. Give it time – it’s coming to a constituency near you.
Tony Blair (Jack Whittle) bursts as a furry Fettes hippy till plucked to Oxford and plucked on the sleeve by a series of gurus, but all in reality Peter Mandelson (Howard Samuels) and ‘New Messiah’ number launches him as the man who can take Sedgefield. ‘I’m Gonna Be Somebody’ is an excited upbeat thing though the more memorable numbers come a little later. This musical, plotting Blair’s rise as a man manipulated and packaged, moves from winning teeth and smiles to a fixed grin and teeth gleaming like tombstones.
The show’s inevitably full of jump-cuts. In its rapid traversal we move fast from 1975 (law firm, Cherie Booth), to 1983 (MP selection), 1992 (Labour lose), 1994 (Granitas, Clause 4), 1997 (and Diana…) and 2003 (that mass distraction) and a 2007 epilogue. Kosovo, Blair’s finest moment that provided the hubris for his worst, and the bromance with Clinton that turned tables on the Democrat smoothie, are omitted.
Most of us who lived through the Blair years are pretty set on Blair the war criminal. Since Blair left the stage nearly 20 years ago, it’s interesting to see how this lands with a younger audience. The (quite young) audience at Leicester Square Theatre loved it. Many younger people though might wonder what the fuss is about. But war criminals never age. That’s a comfort.
Whittle’s on stage for most of the show, and performatively takes a patrician slant to Blair’s populism, keeping a Fettes accent with a spin when required. His tenor line’s strong and he’s good at facial tics. We see the rest of the cast attach to him as he moves through the Labour party, often multi-roling in a blink.
Samuels has a wicked way with a stick, beating Blair till he gets the right answer. And the firm young carrot? One remembers the uncle in Withnaell And I, and what Blair performs on Mandelson’s carrot can be left to decadent imaginations: nothing less will do, and Samuels is another whose presence is granitic, comically menacing.
Cherie Blair (Tori Burgess, remarkably to the life) enjoys everything from Catholic-guilt-sex to seeing off Diana when she gets too fresh and playing – inevitably – Lady M alongside Samuels. ‘She’s a Lady/He’s My Baby’ furnishes all the brattish prog-rock gleam you could wish for in a mid-70s clinch, orgasms and organising the party never better dovetailed.
Neil Kinnock (Martin Johnston, wonderfully hideous make-up) enjoys a brief florescence as Labour leader till (nicely telegraphed all this) the ‘you’re all right’ rally gets interrupted by a call. They’ve lost. The storyline’s inevitably full of such gags, and this is certainly the least painful way I’ve ever had to revisit them.
There’s the grumpy, almost unhinged Gordon Brown (Phil Sealey, burling his way through numbers) with ‘Macroeconomics’ and the 1994 Granitas set-up to divide power, as a boxing match where using vicious tactics Blair strong-arms Brown to a fall. Boxing? ‘Well Alright’ sets Blair’s little Richard III riff on leadership. There’s an underused John Prescott (Rosie Strobel) punching about long before 2001, and more helpfully a priapic Robin Cook (Sally Cheng) who enjoys a great resignation moment.
Princess Diana (Emma Jay Thomas) though is a wondrous creation. Her romance with Blair (‘The Princess and the Pop Prime Minister’ a boppily memorable number), cauterised if not stopped by Cherie, is fantastically rude. Even in death (cue ‘The People’s Princess’), she can come back and give Blair not only a massage but…. Lots of slogans.
On-stage cover William Hazell chips in with a variety of terrorist figures, and through the delirious set the quick-change cast – Osama, Bush, Rumsfeld, the rest of them – are managed with elan and instant recognition. Osama with two daughters non-plussed they can’t fly to some western destination and do a shop is one of those moments you feel might even be true.
Having closed with smashing the popularity stakes with his ‘People’s Princess’ the second act jumps into such numbers as ‘Kill the Infidel’ which nudge boundaries, as well as the ‘Bombs Away!’ Trio. Cringe factors now substitute Bush for Mandelson in ‘Special Relationship’, and after Diana apparates with a bit of spin ‘Sex It Up.’
This is certainly no formulaic musical. Convention’s broken, and after Cheng’s Cook resignation, serious enough in any case, Whittle suddenly lurches into deadly realism. With complete authority he inhabits Blair on his March 18th 2003 justification for war. It’s almost a fourth-wall moment, marking this work – if it wasn’t already apparent – as something very different: a verbatim musical, at least for a few moments.
A series of risible self-justifications end on the memorable ‘The Whole Wide World (is Ruled by Assholes’) with audience participation encouraged, a beautifully blocked set of images suddenly reversed to reveal, well you’ll see.
Oli Jackson Music Director/Keys, David Guy (Guitar/Bass), Harry Bent (Drums) provide real punch but never overwhelm, with Richard Brooker’s sound envelope rendering it clear but again manageable. Libby Watson’s set is a neat set of revolving doors one might say, with a No. 10 prominent, and side portals and other props like boxing rings as versatile and dismantled as quickly as a running gag. Costumes are suitably outré. Mark Dymock’s lighting works overtime, and Francesca Jaynes’ choreography is everywhere apparent, like a mighty reckoning in a little room.
There’s no doubt this is an offbeat, brilliant, rude, absolutely necessary musical. It lurches quite deliberately into bleak seriousness, whilst keeping airborne the smiling death of “a pretty straight sort of guy” and what havoc he caused, being the one who could stop it. The jaunty ending is death-haunted. It should disturb, superbly, just at the point it entertains most. Its acid test will come from younger Millennials and Zoomers. But then that’s the point: the winners rewrite history. History has just struck back, and it’s a blast.