★★★★ ALL OR NOTHING: THE MOD MUSICAL, ARTS THEATRE Tribute to the brief but brilliant career of the Small Faces
If the Small Faces weren’t quite The Beatles or the Stones, they were one of the classic British bands of their era, and their recordings are treasured by ancient Mods, Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher and even discerning representatives of today’s youth. Carol Harrison’s stage musical, evidently a labour of love by a devoted fan who knew singer Steve Marriott back in the day, successfully evokes the thrills and chaos of the mid-Sixties music business, and (better still) features an onstage band which manages to do the music justice.
The quartet’s career only lasted from 1965 to 1969, which means it’s possible to cram all the highlights into the narrative without having to deal with loads of personnel changes or boring periods where nothing much happened. After a bit of background about Marriott’s days as a child actor (he was in Oliver! in the West End aged 13), we see the clothes-obsessed mod hooking up with original keyboard player Jimmy Winston, recruiting bassist Ronnie Lane and drummer Kenney Jones, and playing some noisy R&B in clubland. Marriott’s parents were aggrieved that he’d chucked in his promising acting career, but when the group get signed up by the thuggish Don Arden, the self-styled Al Capone of Pop, and hit the Top 20 with “Whatcha Gonna Do About It”, it seems he made the right decision after all (pictured below, Carol Harrison).
However, Arden’s concerns weren’t artistic, but were all about money and how to make sure he kept most of it, and Harrison has squeezed in a couple of Arden’s personal greatest hits. There’s the one where he tells the group’s irate parents that their offspring haven’t got any money because they’ve spent it all on drugs, and the celebrated moment where he and his Oddjob-esque minder Mad John dangle Robert Stigwood out of a window after he tries to steal the band from Arden.
The Small Faces story turned out to be one of incredible potential which was never quite fulfilled, despite a string of brilliant singles including “Sha La La La Lee” (featuring the unimprovable couplet “Wanna know how my story ends? Well we invited just a few close friends”), the chart-topping “All or Nothing”, “Itchycoo Park” and the comical Cockney knees-up of “Lazy Sunday”. The latter is niftily packaged here as a mini-soap opera, as Marriott and co cope with grumpy neighbours moaning about the noise.
All of the songs are delivered with plenty of oomph and clanging guitars by the band of actor-musicians, with a floor-quaking “Tin Soldier” perhaps the best of the lot. Samuel Pope displays impressive mastery of Marriott’s electric-shock stage moves and does a remarkably good facsimile of his thrilling soul-man bark. His bandmates (the apparently self-regarding Winston was replaced by Ian McLagan at an early stage) are less well defined as characters, though Stanton Wright finds some light and shade in his portrayal of Ronnie Lane, especially the moment where he falls under the mystical spell of The Who’s Pete Townshend.
Harrison (who also directs and appears as Marriott’s mum Kay) has a bit of fun with an array of Sixties icons. There’s a hilarious walk-on from Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You Babe" (Daniel Beales’s Sonny is a dead ringer for Benny Hill), and nicely silly send-ups of such pop institutions as Ready Steady Go! (pictured below), Juke Box Jury and Thank Your Lucky Stars. Tony Blackburn is reborn as a composite of Smashie and Nicey.The show’s one problematic factor is Harrison’s decision to use the ghost of the older Marriott (he died in a house fire in 1991) as narrator, looking rheumily back over his life as it unfolds on the stage behind him. In Chris Simmons’s performance, this spectral Marriott is a booze-raddled old derelict, wandering incongruously around the stage as he reflects on a life which might have turned out a lot differently. Having him permanently part of the action is often a distraction (as well as an obstacle the other performers have to pick their way around), and he has an annoying habit of kissing band-members on the head in displays of whisky-sodden lachrymosity.
But you can overlook that as the show sweeps you along on a tide of zinging pop classics and affectionate Sixties nostalgia. It’s almost worth going just for the band’s greatest-hits set at the end of the evening.
- All or Nothing: The Mod Musical at the Arts Theatre until 11 March
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