“Whether you loathe or love Tony Blair, you’re going to have a brilliant night. Even if you don’t know anything about it, you’re going to have a brilliant night.”
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Jack Whittle, who is starring as Tony Blair in TONY!. We discussed what it’s like taking on the controversial figure, how he feels performing in his first musical, and even some of the mannerisms of Blair that he has taken on!
So how did you first get involved in musical theatre?
Oh, this my first musical!
I’ve done a lot of plays and I’ve always sang – This the first time anyone’s ever trusted me to sing in front of people for money! [Laughs] I think they came with the idea that it would mostly be based on acting the character and then building on top of that. And fortunately, it just so happens that I can sing all of the songs as well!
How are you feeling about your first musical, then? Excited? Scared?
There is a completely different type of pressure on it. Because you wake up and you’re like, “Oh, my God is my voice, okay?” Which you don’t get with plays because you just go “Oh, it’ll come out, no problem!” But I’m realizing that it’s the same with singing – It’ll just come out. I’ve also been working with some phenomenally talented veteran musical theatre performers, who I’ve learned so much from in rehearsals. It’s a completely different skill, being able to act through song and being able to make the lyrics sound spontaneous, rather than just a lovely song. So I’ve learned a lot from just watching people that have done it many, many times, including Martin. In the first few days I was watching Martin perform, and I was like, “Oh, okay. That’s how it’s done. That’s how you do a musical theatre performance.” So it’s been great in that respect!
What made you want to be a part of this show in particular?
I seemed to always get cast in comedies. So when this came along, I thought this would be a really good challenge, because the script is fantastic. It stands alone without any impressions or pastiches of people that everyone in the audience knows. So it’s been quite a challenge combining a farcical caricature with some real poignant moments of naturalistic impression and delivering verbatim speeches from Tony, trying to put across his phenomenal speech delivery, which got him so far in life. So I think the challenge of it was what attracted me to it.
Did you do much research for the role into Tony Blair’s life and the political history surrounding it?
Yeah. I was very young when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, and I remember the aftermath more than anything. I remember him leaving office and I remember Gordon Brown taking over. So I’ve had to do a lot of research into the background – How he got put into power, the people that he met along the way . . . There are people in this show that I’ve really never heard of, and I’ve had some delve into that a bit. I’ve done a lot of watching videos of him speak and a lot of speeches, a lot of interviews, and a lot of looking at myself in a mirror trying to imitate all of that.
Do you feel that you’ve taken on some of his mannerisms?
It takes about two hours after the show to stop doing some of the things, yeah!
I go for a drink with friends and I’m very aware that I’m still smiling painfully wide and gesturing like Tony Blair.
What is it like playing such a controversial political figure?
It’s one of those things that as an actor, you kind of relish it! Every night, you can feel it in the room. Some people have such strong opinions on the man, and you never really know what reaction you’re going to get. I’ve had people shout out already, twice! One of them very sheepishly defending themselves, saying that they did vote for Tony Blair, and the other one saying that they didn’t, very abruptly during the show. But it’s great that people are so invested. I had some friends come to see it who said that whenever Gordon Brown came on stage, they wanted to cheer because they love Gordon Brown so much. And that’s the sort of reaction we’re getting every night, which is good.
How have you found audience reactions?
Yeah, the audiences are loving it! I think what Harry and Steve have done brilliantly is, no matter whether you loathe or love Tony Blair, you’re going to have a brilliant night. Even if you don’t know anything about it, you’re going to have a brilliant night. It’s a very well written show. They’ve done a brilliant job.
What has it been like working with Harry Hill?
Great. You’re never really taught how to do comedy. And I always say that I’ve picked up what I do now from watching hours and hours of shows that Steve’s been involved in for watching Harry for hours growing up. And I think, quite naturally, that kind of energy and timing is soaked in over time. So getting any sort of feedback from Harry is like gold dust.
Do you have a favorite scene in the show?
Yeah, there’s two. When Princess Diana dies, which sounds crazy to say as my favorite moment! [Laughs]
There’s this brilliant panic from everyone at Number 10 trying desperately to think of a way to make it okay, like, “Let’s try and manage everyone’s grief in the country.” And it’s one of the things Tony Blair’s remembered for very fondly – How well he handled that. And it’s quite a fun scene to do. It’s quite shocking – Some audience members don’t know how to react! And then the very end of the show, where it’s the closing statement from Tony, where he holds the mirror up to the audience and says, “You’re complicit in this as well, you all made these choices.” And he says, “Look, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. We don’t ever get who we deserve. Everyone’s a bit rubbish.”
If you could have a conversation with Tony Blair, would you? What would you talk about?
I would, but I’d want him to see this first!
I think he’d get a lot from it. I think he might cringe at some moments. [Laughs]
I think anyone would cringe watching a musical about themselves !
I think it might soften him up a bit if he sees this. I would say he clearly believed in everything that he said, clearly believed in everything that he did. If he was easily led astray, that’s up to interpretation for people to judge him on. I would be interested to know whether he thought he was led down the garden path by somebody else, or whether it really was his idea, his intention. I’d like to know his view on that.
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
Firstly, the main point of this is to come and have a good time. To come and laugh at some tragic moments in our history, at what was a really hopeful time for everybody. The turn of the millennium, everyone was so hopeful of this being the future of Britain, the future of politics, and it really did crash and burn and we are left now, still, with the remnants of it. I think it’s important for people to be able to laugh at that. Once you can laugh at something, I do think you can look at things in a different light. I do think there’s a nice message of, “Don’t just go along with the funny, smiley, charming man just because of that reason.” So that’s a nice thing for everyone to take away, as well as having a very good night!
And how would you describe TONY! in one word?
Extremely sweaty! It’s a whirlwind. I’m very much at the center of this chaotic whirlwind of characters just bombarding the audience constantly. It’s good fun!
Thank you to Jack for the fun interview and to Amanda Malpass for arranging it!
TONY! is playing at the Leicester Square Theatre from 15 April to 21 May, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford from 25 May to 3 June, Birmingham Rep from 7 to 10 June, New Theatre in Cardiff from 14 to 17 June, Richmond Theatre from 21 to 24 June, Theatre Royal in Brighton from 27 June to 1 July, Theatre Royal in Bath from 3 to 8 July, Storyhouse in Chester from 11 to 15 July, Festival Theatre in Malvern from 18 to 22 July, Darlington Hippodrome from 24 to 26 July, Sedgefield Parish Hall from 27 to 29 July, Pleasance at EICC in Edinburgh from 2 to 27 August, Churchill Theatre in Bromley from 21 to 23 September, Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne from 26 to 30 September, The Lowry in Salford from 2 to 7 October, and The Liverpool Playhouse from 10 to 14 October. More information about the show can be found here.
Photo Credit: TONY! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] Jack Whittle as Tony Blair & Tori Burgess as Cherie Blair ©Mark Senior