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Tony Blair musical: Fast-paced, hilarious show

The rise and fall of the Labour Party's most successful leader may be an unlikely subject for a madcap comedy musical.

But surreal comedian Harry Hill is well known for daft ideas that somehow turn out to be hilarious, and this collaboration with songwriter Steve Brown is no exception.

TONY! opened at Cardiff's New Theatre last night (Wednesday 14 June) to a rapturous reception.

This is a fast-paced, high-energy, laugh-out-loud show, which (thankfully) places more emphasis on quick-fire gags than on historical accuracy.

So, in this story, Tony (Jack Whittle) and Gordon Brown (Phil Sealey) first meet as students together - Blair claiming the top bunk in their student digs, and promising Brown he will have his turn later!

After university, he drifts into a job as a lawyer in London and meets his future wife Cherie Booth (Tori Burgess), a horny Liverpudlian with a social conscience, who persuades him to stand as a Labour MP. And from then there's no stopping him.

The first act tells that incredible success story - a success planned by a scheming and manipulative Peter Mandelson (Howard Samuels in an especially fun role, which starts as a pantomime villain, but later sees him making a balloon animal and flirting with the audience).

And in the second act it all goes horribly wrong after Blair defies world opinion and joins the US in the invasion of Iraq.

Along the way, we meet more outrageous caricatures of people who helped shape the Blair story, including Princess Diana (Emma Jay Thomas), who returns from the afterlife to give Tony some advice and a massage; John Prescott (Rosie Strobel), who always wants a drink or a fight or preferably both; Alastair Campbell (Samuels again), who stops playing the bagpipes long enough to read (but not change, according to the theatre's lawyers!) that dossier on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction; and a Saddam Hussein (Sealey again) who models himself on Groucho Marx.

It’s bonkers, irreverent, and at times fairly crude. The humour around the David Blunkett character, for instance, is mostly about his blindness - so he walks into doorframes and doesn't know when his guide dog is humping someone.

In places it has the hit-and-miss feel of a student revue - albeit one with many more hits than misses and which is delivered brilliantly by a versatile and energetic cast, most of whom perform multiple roles.

As well as those already mentioned, that talented cast includes Martin Johnston (as Neil Kinnock and others), Sally Cheng (Robin Cook and others), and William Hazell.

Jack Whittle is superb in the title role - with his near-permanent smile and his adoration of 'Mick Jaggers' (sic). While Howard Samuels revels in the role of 'Mandy' and its opportunities for interaction with the audience.

There's also a super three-piece band on stage, comprising Oli Jackson, David Guy, and Harry Bent.

Set design by Libby Watson is simple and effective, as his her costume design, which mainly comprises those trademark New Labour suits with red ties.

Directed by Peter Rowe, with lighting design by Mark Dymock and choreography by Francesca Jaynes, TONY! >> is at the New Theatre until Saturday (17 June). Tickets are available from the box office on 0343 310 0041 or online here.

Review by Andy Weltch

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