Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Edinburgh Fringe 2007: Tony! The Blair Musical, C Venues, 18.20

(This was written for MusicOMH, too - look, I've got a biography and everything!)

At the moment, White Rose Theatre - a group of students and recent graduates from York University - are living the Edinburgh Fringe dream with their musical treatment of Tony Blair’s ten years at No. 10. They’ve been in national newspapers and on TV, and as a result, now have a sell-out show on their hands. But it has to be said, it hasn’t all been down to them alone. The fact that they have a direct rival, Tony Blair: The Musical, has meant that their show is not just an anonymous one of many, but part of a great story.

It is surprising, actually, that there are only two musicals about Tony Blair running at the Fringe, when you consider how theatrical his reign was. Tony! The Blair Musical picks up on the fact that Blair was a rocker himself, and that - for the first few years at least - he was apparently obsessed with the glitz and glamour of office. It is no surprise, then, that his story works so effortlessly as a musical. Writer/director Chris Bush and composer Ian McKlusky have used this happy coincidence to great effect - the songs are true showstoppers. They all sound vaguely like something you’ve heard before, but that’s certainly a good thing, displaying McKlusky’s intimate knowledge of the great musical shows, and the tunes are matched by laugh-out-loud lyrics.

Many reviewers, however, have taken umbrage with the fact that this is not a scathing, political attack on Blair’s years as Prime Minister, but then they are judging the show by a criterion is doesn’t ask to be judged by - this is Blair’s reign as seen through Blair’s own eyes (the fabulous James Duckworth as our Tone talks directly to the audience), and as such, we are persuaded that he was just trying to do what he felt was right. It is surprising, perhaps, to those reviewers that Chris Bush, one so young, could be this even-handed in his analysis, but this may be something we should in fact be praising. In any case, this is far from a vindication. The ‘Big Conversation’ is mocked through pointing out all the things - from the NHS to the trains - we weren’t allowed to talk about, and Blair is seen to step on absolutely anyone who doesn’t agree with him; “There’s no ‘I’ in team, and no ‘me’ in Tony” is a recurring refrain.

There are a few problems with the show: George Bush seems a hasty sketch of a caricature (though the performance is hilarious nonetheless) and there’s the occasional crack in voices which makes you worry how they will cope for the rest of the run. But ultimately, there are enough moments of real inspiration to make this show a joy. The biggest cheer of the night came for one of those wonderful moments, when former Tory leaders, from John Major to Michael Howard, appeared as a Barber Shop quartet. I’m sure this is a highlight for most audiences, but you can’t help feeling that it was extra special this time. Why? Ed Duncan Smith plays his father, Iain, who just happened to be in the audience tonight, laughing along with the rest of us.

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