Whether you remember Tony Blair becuase of the international laws he broke or the fact that he made fox-hunting illegal, TONY! is a raucous, cartoonish musical. Whilst mocking Blair and New Labour, seems at times to give the former prime minister a carte blanche, but leaves us wondering if we did just witness a satire or an accurate retelling.
A high-energy tornado of a musical
Written by Harry Hill and Steve Brown, TONY! starts with Tony Blair (Jack Whittle) on his death bed, reflecting on his life, and taken through the events leading up to and including his premeirship by Peter Mandelson (Howard Samuels) in a Christmas Carol Ghost of Christmas past kind of way. We are promised by the director, Peter Rowe, that everyone regalrdless will be equally mocked, and never has anything rung so true. Hill and Brown create a perfect marriage of a musical, matching each other's wit in a cheeky playfulness. There’s a perfect balance between mockery, seriousness and overexaggeration of the various chaacters that it might as well be a retelling of Blair’s political career. Hill manages to create such ridiculous scenarios made more so by an equally ridiculous script that borrows enough from reality to make these imagined scenes ring true. It’s as if he’s reading between the lines of what happened and then relaying it to us for our personal amusement. This can also be said of Brown’s lyrics which are packed with such a matter of factness that it could almost be considered sarcasm, but stops just shy of reaching that point. There are just so many intricately clever lyrics that are just insanely funny, that you just can’t stop rolling over in your head afterwards.
That being said there are some parts of the second act that just don’t fit. Starting with two character songs Kill the Infidel and I Never Done Anything Wrong that interrupt the flow and just don’t fit. Yes it’s edgy and daring - especially if you consider the timeline of the show - and every good opera needs an antagonist, but they’re positioned in a way that suggests that they aren't needed, and if they were removed the show doesn't lose anything. It’s a matter of clarity; the sudden jump in focus leaves us a little disoriented and we miss some of the humour, like the mockery of a Bush-era conspiracy theory (although considering at that point we haven’t actually met Bush, it does seem a little like firing Chekhov’s gun before showing it). Like many musicals, TONY! falls prey to sound balance issues between the band and the singers. Whether it’s the volume of the band or the occasional lack of enunciation from the performers, it is often difficult to hear the lyrics, which means that we either miss context or the first half of the joke, neither of which is ideal when watching a political satire.
The size of the stage at the Leicester Square Theatre initially appears too small to host a musical, considering the space needed for dance numbers. Francesca Jaynes’ choreography proves this assumption wrong, managing to create dances that have the feel and look of a big Broadway number without the actors appearing cramped on the stage while they carry it out. Libby Watson’s uniform costume design does speak to a larger political analysis about the remaking of the Labour Party in Tony Blair's image, but from a theatrical point of view recreating Blair’s look on every cast member - except the odd accessorie to distinguish character- forces us to concentrate on what is most important- the libretto. Between the costume and the set there is a lack of distraction that focuses our attention on the comedy so that we are able to appreciate it more.
The cast provide a high-octane performance as they switch between their various roles in a way that isn’t noticeable at all. Whittle has an immense talent in managing to appear incredibly unassuming and liekable - someone that you don’t notice until you do. With his constant grin and thumbless pointing, he looks so much like a marionette that you’d half expect strings to be coming from his back and held by Samuels’ Mandelson. His switch between this charismatic open, happy go lucky persona to the solemnity that he shows in his address to Parliament, creates such a sense of gravity onstage that casts a shadow over that particualr moment and adds depth to a show and a character that up to that point has done evrything it can to prove that it does not take itself seriously. Because even when we see Whittle’s dealings and political manipulations - for that’s what they are even though his performance makes it seems like too harsh of a word to use to describe anything he does - it doesn’t entirely register as such initially until you realise that it’s a tale told by someone who believes that they are the hero in their own story. It’s a crafty performance by an incredibly talented actor who is relaying to us a very important truth about the world.
Samuels’ portrayal of Mandelson is best described as the personification of a slap on the wrist. He has turned this reviled figure into a political Puck - simply there to cause chaos and mischief. Samuels appears to be the only one onstage that is fully aware of what’s going on and because of that he is duty-bound to misbehave as much as possible. His performance provides a lot of light relief which is set apart from the rest of the humour in this musical in that it appears more gleeful in an imp-like, less deliberate silliness kind of way. It’s the little nudges, explanations and ‘oh silly me’ attitude that makes his devil on the shoulder performance worryingly likeable.
TONY! is cathartically funny, there’s no argument there. This is a high-energy tornado of a musical that has summed up and put the record - like Tony likes to say he is - straight.