What It’s Like Watching British Political Satires TONY! and NewsRevue as an American at Edinburgh Fringe
These shows are designed for British audiences—but there’s more than a few jokes even Americans will get.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!
TONY! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] splashed onto the stage of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London last summer for its world premiere and headed to the West End for a limited run this past spring. Billed as a political comedy, it irreverently tells a version of how Tony Blair made his way to becoming Prime Minister—and his fall from favor and ejection from 10 Downing Street. There are wigs, balloon animals, cheeky asides to the audience, and lots of songs. Only some of the figures will be familiar to those who perhaps grew up elsewhere (Princess Diana for one). Understanding this satire’s commentary relies on having foundational knowledge about what it’s commenting on. So what’s it like to watch British political satires when you’re pretty in the dark?
Well, there’s luckily a pretty major connection point with TONY! for a U.S. theatregoer. As Prime Minister from 1997-2007, Blair led the British government in overlap with America’s former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The latter figures more prominently in Blair’s arc as he had joined Bush on his crusade to find alleged weapons of mass destruction following 9/11. The subsequent involvement in war in the Middle East ultimately led to Blair’s decline in popularity and resignation from office.
As TONY! is an irreverent satire, the relationship between Blair and Bush was given a quite different spin. A duet between Jack Whittle and Martin Johnston, playing world leaders Blair and Bush respectively, becomes fueled by sexual tension that spills over between the two. Eager to save Bush from ruining it all, Vice President Dick Cheney steps in to force the two apart. And if this seems like the most absurd thing the musical comedy could deliver, hold onto your hats: Princess Diana returns from beyond the grave to give Blair a shoulder massage and strategic advice.
Some of the humor is pure comedy, no commentary involved. There’s a rather amusing creation of a balloon animal that is filled with innuendo to the point where you wonder if any of the actors on stage might break character. With jokes that are strongly reminiscent of classic British pantomime, it’s a feast for British audiences. As an American, it becomes a bit of a memory exercise while trying to keep up on the comedic and chaotic ride. And that’s because TONY! is also telling a story. Albeit a completely off-its-rocker version.
Now, that is not the case with NewsRevue. A classic visitor to the Fringe, the sketch comedy show was created in 1979. Pulling from the headlines of the past year, it pokes fun at the very present world we live in. And while much of it also comments on British politics, it also pulls from events large enough to become international news. If you’re wondering if this year’s show has a bit about the Titanic submersible explosion, it absolutely did. It also used the bit to make a point about how much attention and money was given to that event as opposed to the thousands of refugees who have died at sea the past year as they try to find asylum.
Because of its wider scope—and the inherent nature of a being a sketch comedy show—NewsRevue’s numbers are more hit or miss depending on if you know the headlines it’s referencing. If not, not to worry—the bits are rarely longer than five minutes, and some seem to be as short as one. For Americans looking out for American news stories, former president Donald Trump makes the cut in a sketch about classified documents.
The final number is a rather clever mashup of songs by classic rock band Queen to—you guessed it—comment on the last year of events featuring members of the royal family. “I Want to Break Free,” “Under Pressure,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and more are used to discuss the release of Prince Harry’s book Spare, King Charles III’ ascension to the throne, Prince Andrew’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein, and more. It’s a number both highly critical and immensely funny for its clever use of lyrics and no-holds-barred take on the royals.
What was perhaps more interesting than the comedies was having a chance to get a glimpse at how British culture uses comedy to discuss its politics in the theatre. If you’re confident in having deep knowledge of British politics and want a laugh, then perhaps your answer would be different. But as an American with a fair amount of knowledge that still has its limits, seeing how British theatre continues to operate as a middle ground to bring people together over politics was worth seeing. After all, in these satires, no party was safe from criticism.
TONY! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] is running at Pleasance at EICC’s Pentland Theatre through August 27. For tickets, click here. NewsRevue is running at Pleasance Courtyard’s The Grand, also through August 27. For tickets, click here.