Theatre Review: TONY! (THE TONY BLAIR ROCK OPERA) – The Lowry, Salford

With its mashup of musical and theatrical styles, TONY! (THE TONY BLAIR ROCK OPERA) is a tongue-in-cheek look at the political career of the UK’s youngest prime minister.

3 out of 5 stars

Prepare to be rocked, rolled and slapstick-ed as The Lowry’s Quays Theatre welcomes TONY! (THE TONY BLAIR ROCK OPERA): a tongue-in-cheek look at the political career of the UK’s youngest prime minister since 1812.

Written by long-time collaborators Harry Hill and Steve Brown, this mashup of musical and theatrical styles will have you rolling in the aisles, covered in vegetables (perhaps avoid the front row…) and reminiscing about a bygone era of British politics.

Director Peter Rowe stresses that “characters of every race, creed, cultural or religious background, nationality and political persuasion are invited in to be mercilessly sent up and skewered” and this is absolutely true: the show is not a Labour-loving, red-tinted love in, but neither is it a character assassination. We are shown Blair’s rise through Oxford, via his love for rock ‘n’ roll and into politics; we see the popular figure grow and grow before being voted into office in 1997; finally, we see his descent into a character disliked by so many, plagued by his controversial decisions. Blair’s tragedy mimics the very best operatic themes, and it is that which inspired Hill and Brown.

The performance itself starts slowly. For a show so reliant on songs to progress the narrative and establish characters, diction is an issue, meaning lots of information is lost, and, with the band onstage behind the action, it is hard to hear what is being said. Then, with slapstick and farce playing such a large part in the comedic stylings, caricatures of key political figures are introduced rapidly and with exaggerated features – the issue here is that the humour rather relies on the audience knowing exactly who the people are and, if you don’t, a lot of it goes over your head; for every George Bush there is a Robin Cook, for every Osama Bin Laden a Neil Kinnock.

The songs have their moments but are too often forgettable or dragged out, and the plot is fired through so quickly that it can be hard to take it all in. However, the show does grow, and the second act, in particular, really comes into its own, bringing shades of dark to counteract the light and pushing the boundaries of what can be joked about.

Tony Blair himself, played by Jack Whittle, is sensational. His characterisation is immediately noticeable and hardly drops throughout. Every moment shows an eagerness to bounce back into the ‘face of New Labour’: grinning and maintaining his image whilst showing subtle tics to give him the suggestion of being nothing more than a bobblehead to be controlled by Peter Mandelson (Howard Samuels). Whittle’s comedic timing is effortless, leading the slapstick elements with precision, and his vocals are excellent, particularly in the catchy ‘The People’s Princess’ and ‘The Whole Wide World’. The aforementioned darker themes of the second act allow his character to really develop and change, most strikingly in the sequence following ‘Bomb’s Away Reprise’, from poster boy to beleaguered leader, which he does with aplomb.

Whilst Whittle excels, he is not alone in stand-out performances: Phil Sealey’s Gordon Brown is consistent with his character traits and choices, as is Rosie Strobel’s John Prescott. Multi-role plays a huge part throughout, and despite early issues, more established characters become easily recognisable.

TONY! (THE TONY BLAIR ROCK OPERA) is undoubtedly a Harry Hill creation. It has funny moments; it is satirical, and it is clever. It can simultaneously leave you laughing along and wondering why people voted for them and even make you sympathise with a politician…

TONY! (THE TONY BLAIR ROCK OPERA) runs at The Lowry, Salford, until 7 October 2023