Writer/Director: Carol Harrison
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Some definitions may come in useful for this musical based on the story of 60s band, The Small Faces: a ‘bird’ is a young woman, a ‘sort’ is a good-looking woman, ‘Hayley Mills’ are pills, amphetamines to be precise, while a ‘face’ is one of the Mod elite. After seeing All or Nothing, you’ll wish that you were a face too.
Yes, this is a jukebox musical, but writer Carol Harrison makes sure that the narrative is just as important as the music here. There’s no awkward shoehorning of the songs into the story, and the narrative is never so thin that we think we’re at a Small Faces tribute concert. We follow the story of lead singer Steve Marriott as he forms the band with his friends Ronnie Lane, Kenney Jones, and Ian McLagan. They have four years of incredible success right at the moment when London becomes the Swinging City.
We are guided on this rags-to-riches story by the ghost of Marriott, who watches from the wings his younger self. This ghost witnesses the heady days as the band signs its first record deal, and later relives the humiliation as the band breaks up. At first, it seems that this older Marriott is merely the narrator, but because of some careful writing by Harrison, he soon becomes the main character in this show, He’s played with ease by Chris Simmons, not just the ghost of Marriott, but the spirit of a long-lost Londoner. Always with a drink in one hand, and a fag in the other, Simmons embodies the perfect Cockney, cheeky and congenial. Thankfully, he’s hardly ever off stage.
Marriott’s younger self is played by Samuel Pope, and while his acting is solid, gangly and awkward as he sets up the band, paranoid and prickly as he deals with fame, his singing voice is magnificent here. His performance reminds us how soulful The Small Faces were in comparison to The Beatles. The latter’s music is described by one of the characters as ‘Merseybeat, girl’s stuff’. Despite their manager insisting they record pop songs by other people (Sha La La La Lee), the boys wanted to pursue their interest in R&B, and Pope certainly has the right voice here, and has the Arts Theatre rocking with him.
As the subtitle of the show suggests, this musical is also about the rise of the Mod subculture in the 1960s. Mostly set after the Battle of Brighton in 1964, where the Mods fought with their rivals, the Rockers, All or Nothing demonstrates how working-class men became interested in fashion. Mods would save their money so they could buy the right clothes and the right labels. It was the first time that boys could show such an interest in fashion without being accused of being homosexual: they took a masculine pride in their Fred Perry polo-shirts, their John Stephen’s knitwear and their desert boots from Clarks. Charlotte Espiner, the costume designer, must be commended for getting the look so perfect. Every single performer, in each costume change, seems to have time-travelled from 1966, dressed in Carnaby Street style. The band’s shoes almost get their own applause.
All the cast are strong, but Ronnie (Stanton Wright), Kenney (Stefan Edwards) and Ian (Alexander Gold) are underdeveloped characters, blending into the same cheeky-chappie stereotype, despite the actors’ diligent attempts. Russell Floyd and Daniel Beales are very funny playing a whole host of minor characters from DJ Tony Blackburn to The Small Faces’ first manager Don Arden. The only other character drawn with the same details as Marriott is his mother, who is played by Harrison herself. But here, Harrison is not so adept, overacting in a melodramatic style, which is more suited to EastEnders, a soap opera in which she once starred. A key scene towards the end of the show would be more effective and moving if her performance was less strident.
These grumbles aside, it’s heartening to see another home-grown musical hit the West End after The Grinning Man and Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, and it’s fitting that a London band should be remembered in Soho. On press night, scores of Mods on their Vespas stopped traffic outside the Arts Theatre proving that the subculture still thrives. And while you may not be a Mod when you enter the theatre, you’ll definitely come out as one, singing along to All or Nothing or Itchycoo Park. We are the Mods!
Runs until 10 March 2018 | Image: Phil Weedon