Harry Hill's Tony Blair rock opera premieres at Park Theatre
- Credit: Courtesy of Park Theatre
Tony! (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) is set to bring the giddy Britpop era to glorious life with a cast of characters from Princess Diana to Liam Gallagher and Osama Bin Laden.
Penned by comedian Harry Hill and his regular musical collaborator Steve Brown, the anarchic, satirical show at Park Theatre is a "reckless reappraisal of Britain's first pop prime minister" that promises to play fast and loose with the facts.
Brown, whose writing credits include I Can't Sing The X Factor Musical, said: "It's a comedy knockabout but the heart of the show is a tragedy. Blair is a Macbeth figure - not that we are blaming Cherie - but because of the inevitability of the demise. All political careers end in failure and the higher you go, the further you fall."
Hill adds: "It’s struck me for a while that Tony Blair’s life is epic - operatic even, in its story arc. 25 years ago there he was - the master of all he surveyed, surfing his Britpop wave. The future all looked so rosy back then. I know it doesn’t sound like obvious material for a comedy musical but we’re not laughing at Tony so much as laughing at the choices we made back in the '90s and early 2000s."
Tony! starts with a "Citizen Kane" moment, as an elderly Blair croaks out a last request for his old guitar, then spools back to explore how the former Ugly Rumours frontman went from a "long-haired hippy" to waging war in Iraq in a few decades.
"He was a pop prime minister," says Brown. "He seemed incredibly young and relatable. We want to remind people of the feeling of optimism of that time, of Noel Gallagher necking Champagne in Downing Street - the period when the results came in and we were all so relieved to get rid of the bloody Conservatives. Yet it ends in this terrible way."
Brown has worked with Hill for more than two decades, writing jingles for his TV Burp and songs for The Harry Hill Movie. He's also penned comic songs for Spitting Image, Rory Bremner and Ant and Dec - and played bandleader Glen Ponder on Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge.
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"We're old friends," says Brown. "Harry calls me up and tells me what he wants or has an idea, then sets about trying to convince me it isn't terrible idea, and I see how it could work. He can't ever wait to start writing. He's the husky saying 'let's get on with it,' I'm the Labrador pulling him back."
They originally trialled Tony! as a jukebox musical of "cheesy guilty pleasures," which Brown says "sounded like a funny gag on paper but in reality was unbearable".
After putting it to bed for a while, Brown, who co-wrote hit West End musical Spend Spend Spend, decided it could only work with original songs.
"I hate jukebox musicals. Even with intelligent writing you can't make an existing song tell a story and show character as fully as an original piece. You have to think about where the songs are going to come in, how they are going to propel the story along."
With songs including the Gordon Brown number Macroeconomics and Blair's I Never Done Anything Wrong, the gig-like atmosphere of a rock opera was "not because we want lots of rock or operatic music, but because the high emotion and hubristic element felt right for the overblown theatrical form of opera, or 'poperetta', if you will".
While there's a madcap, raiding the dressing up box energy to Tony!, with actors taking multiple roles and Peter Mandelson as MC, there are serious underlying issues.
"911 happens during the interval. We don't shy away from it. Without that it wouldn't be a tragedy. Although we have turned the raw material into laughs, these are serious, horrific events and we allow the audience 30 seconds to pause for thought."
As for his anti-hero, who famously lived in Islington before moving into Downing Street, Brown thinks Blair is a "people pleaser".
"He's a terrific actor, if he hadn't gone into politics he could easily have gone into showbusiness. But power corrupts, he became messianic, and just like in showbusiness, people are less inclined to say no to their lavish, unfeasible ideas."
But with populists like Trump and Boris now centre stage, isn't Blair old news?
"He's still an influential figure. Don't forget he won his third term after that war that we all marched against. And time gives you perspective. We are looking at a general idea through a specific. Ultimately, it's about power.
"What motivates people who are rolling in it? The last scene of the show asks some pretty obvious questions. Think of the grotesque people who are in charge now. Why do we cede such control to them? And what kind of maniac wants to be in charge of a country?"
Tony! runs at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park from June 2 until July 9. Go to www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/tony-the-tony-blair-rock-opera