Roll up, roll up—it’s Tony! The Blair Musical

Success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is often more about shameless gimmicks than flawless performances. Amy Scott talks tactics with York DramaSoc’s hopefuls.

Sitting at home one night after a musical marathon with Evita as the highlight, student director and playwright Chris Bush started thinking. Thinking about musicals; thinking about iconic people; and thinking about how and why the two collide. Chris was thinking, perhaps, about his slightly unpopular American namesake, and this, perhaps, led him to think about said namesake’s English counterpart. And then inspiration struck.

After a succession of titles including ‘Tony; My Life in Rock’ and simply ‘Call Me Tony’, ‘Tony! The Blair Musical’ was born. Tony! The Blair Musical was written and directed by Bush, and premieres at the York Theatre Royal this July before transferring to the prestigious C Venues at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. The prospect of the dates at York Theatre Royal is clearly exciting as well as nerve-wracking for the production team. Producer Anna Donaghy seems genuinely nervous about seeing the posters going up in the centre of York in the next few weeks, but the real test of this show’s mettle will come when the cast hit the billboards in Scotland later this summer.

The Tony! production team join a plethora of York students making their way to Edinburgh to take part in the largest arts festival in the world. Beth Pitts’s recent Drama Barn production of Cricket on the Moon will be making an appearance, as well as this term’s production of Trainspotting directed by Simon Maeder. Student company Rubber Duck Theatre return after their success with Fantastic Mr Fox last year with a production of Roald Dahl’s The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me and Alex Wright’s Tapestries will also be joining the York contingent.

Bush and Donaghy know all too well the pitfalls of taking a show to the Fringe. Last year, the White Rose Theatre’s production of Man and God (also written by Bush) received positive reviews from a number of publications at the Fringe, but didn’t manage to grab much media attention or sell many tickets, despite being a well-written, funny and thought-provoking piece with a cast of some of DramaSoc’s finest actors. Undeterred, however, Bush is optimistic about the company’s chances with this year’s production: “The show is topical, a comedy and a musical—everything a show could need for commercial success at the Fringe. Last year we went with a piece of legitimate theatre. This year we’re going with a shameless gimmick.”

Someone who knows a thing or two about shameless gimmicks is director and bona fide campus legend, William Seaward. He is also returning to the Fringe this year with the second in his series of Bouncy Castle Experiments. Bouncy Castle Hamlet’s success last year saw him grace the pages of the Guardian five times, including three headlines, as well as appearing on Sky and BBC News. Consequently, Seaward and his bouncy castle have been invited to return to Rocket Venues, who are described by the director as ‘ridiculously enthusiastic’. The highly original, if not entirely artistically viable, choice of staging Shakespeare on a bouncy castle came to Seaward in an unexpected setting: Argentina. “I was at a young cousin’s birthday party some months before staging Waiting For Godot at the Fringe a few years ago,” he told me. “I was stuck for staging ideas, but also mesmerised by the bouncy castle at the party and somehow, somewhere along the line, the two thought processes fused.” Although Beckett’s classic did not receive the bouncy castle treatment, the seed was sown for Seaward’s Shakespearean triumph last year.

“Blair would enjoy it. He won’t be very busy this summer—he might as well come and see it”

This year, the bouncy castle will be released from its current position (under Seaward’s CD player) for his production of Bouncy Castle Macbeth. He feels that Macbeth is more suited to the bouncy castle environment as “it has a lot more action than Hamlet”—neatly summing up centuries of literary criticism on the Prince of Denmark’s difficulties. Many of the characters will be wearing kilts although, thankfully, given their propensity to flying up, they will be worn with underwear, which Seaward hopes will win the hearts of the Scottish audiences. The director brushes off worries that speaking the word “Macbeth” on a bouncy castle is as disastrous as uttering the name in a theatre: “We are going to play with the curse thing—my current plan is for the castle to start collapsing every time anyone says it.” When asked what he’s learnt about being a media success at the Fringe, his advice is simply “to be much less subtle”. Exactly how one can be less subtle than performing Hamlet on a bouncy castle is left unclear.

It seems Seaward’s approach of abandoning all subtlety really is the recipe for success at the increasingly crowded festival, and the team behind Tony! The Blair Musical have taken the lesson to heart. Songs in the extravaganza include ‘There’s No “Me” In Tony’, the more obtuse ‘I Am Evita Perón’ and a gaggle of singing soldiers in Iraq. The advertising campaign planned for implementation at the Fringe will mimic a political campaign with posters and rosettes. In another genius bid for publicity, the play also features a barbershop quartet of failed Tory leaders including student Ed Duncan- Smith, who will be playing the role of his own father, the former Conservative party leader, Ian Duncan- Smith.

Duncan-Smith junior also plays the part of Alistair Campbell, who appears alongside Tony and Cherie (played by James Duckworth and Ellie Cox), Peter Mandleson, Gordon Brown, George Bush and Princess Diana. Donaghy explained the difficulties of the casting process: “We weren’t just looking for people who could act, or people who could sing, but also people who could commit to 30 shows and feasibly be made to look something like who they’re supposed to be.” However, Bush seems confident they have found the right man to play Blair in Duckworth, who apparently has “a great Tony grin and hand gestures”. The demands on its cast are certainly high, with a run 10 times the length of an average Drama Barn production a mixture of trained and untrained singers. The battle to keep everyone’s voice in shape may overtake the usual Fringe battle of making sure your liver still functions at the end.

Bush has shied away from making political statements in his piece. The story of Tony Blair’s 10 years in office is told from his own perspective, and is as a result somewhat rosy and, as Bush puts it, “faintly ridiculous”. The writer preferred to make the piece “an affectionate satire, rather than a searing political comment”. When asked if Blair would consider the musical a fitting part of his legacy, Bush enthuses, “I think he’d enjoy it”. Donaghy plans to send the script and copies of the songs to Downing Street. Bush points out, ‘He won’t be very busy in the summer, he might as well come and see it.’

Tony! The Blair Musical is on at the York Theatre Royal July 18-21, in Edinburgh August 1 – 27 in C Venues. Bouncy Castle Macbeth premieres at Edinburgh’s Rocket Venues August 2 – 18.