Did it all start with Horrible Histories, CBBC’s joyous ransacking of history’s cupboards, blowing the cobwebs off the subject with a breezy pop song or two? Since then, SIX has taken the conceit from children’s television to the West End stage, allowing the unfortunate spouses of Henry Tudor to sing their lives. Certainly, it all seems a long way from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, the rather more traditional godmother of both. Arguably, the current boom in historical musicals is at once more pop in its sensibilities and more didactic in its intent.

In contrast to its predecessors, Tony!, being the biography of the last-but-one Labour prime minister, the eponymous, now ennobled Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, sits uncomfortably close to home – less a history lesson, and more a 1990s clip show. As conceived by co-conspirators You’ve Been Framed voiceover artist Harry Hill and Steve Brown, who played Glen Ponder in Alan Partridge’s house band on Knowing Me, Knowing You, Blair’s story is recast as a Faustian fable, in which its protagonist sells his soul, pound by pound, for vertiginous increments of power and wealth.

Photo courtesy of The Lowry

In keeping with this theme, and with a pre-Hallowe’en aptness, the piece opens on the one-time premier’s deathbed, around which the chorus has gathered to hear the Catholic convert’s confession. The gothic undertones seem to portend something akin to The Rocky Horror Show but instead act as a framing device, setting up Jack Whittle’s Blair, his grin running the gamut of emotions from anxiety to zeal, to recall his greatest hits, unheavenly host to his own edition of This Is Your Life.

Like the new-born Tony in the sequence imagining his birth, the musical takes time to find its feet, so that at first it has the feel of sketch show satire of the cosiest kind. If there’s not much to frighten the horses in these early scenes, the production begins to hit its stride with the introduction of the Mephistophelean Peter Mandelson, incarnated with all the vampiric self-possession of a show business reporter on daytime television’s Lorraine in a shameless piece of spotlight-robbery by Howard Samuels. Importantly, he and Whittle evince the instinctive rapport of the best comedy double acts, elevating a piece of what can best be described as carrot-and-slapstick into a superbly mounted comic set piece.

Ironically, given its protagonist’s forename, Tony! seems most compromised by its uncertainty of tone. On the whole, for instance, the very broadness of its caricatures works to blunt their effect. It’s telling that the sharpest cuts to Blair’s vanity are self-inflicted, lifted verbatim from Hansard, and quoting his mendacious rhetoric to the House of Commons in support of the war on Iraq.

Photo courtesy of The Lowry

What, though, of the songs? In a musical in particular, they can cover a multitude of sins. While Well Alright might admittedly rhyme ‘ginger’ with ‘injure’, there’s more to it than the wordplay and hummable bubblegum of its companions. Rather, there’s a melancholy wistfulness in its left-hand heart that lends it a heft audibly lacking elsewhere. Similarly, in contrast to the clubbable cock-snooking of the inoffensive lyrics of the likes of I’m Gonna Be Somebody, there’s a more high-wire fearlessness in which the softer, and notably deader targets of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are eviscerated in, by turns, I Never Done Anything Wrong and the dangerously sing-along Kill The Infidel with a glee reminiscent of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police.

If the climax is anything but climactic, it’s in such almost throwaway moments of devil-may-care that the more audacious of Tony!‘s aspirations come closest to fulfilment. Ultimately, it’s the recollection of scenes such as Saddam Hussein scampering like Baby Jane in army fatigues across a vaudeville stage, or the Devil Incarnate fashioning a balloon animal that linger, like pop songs, in the memory.

By Desmond Bullen

All photos courtesy of The Lowry

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TONY! (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) is at The Lowry until October 7, 2023. For more information, click here.