All Or Nothing – New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Book and Director: Carol Harrison
Music & Lyrics: The Small Faces
Originating Director: Tony McHale
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Although only recording and performing for around four years in the 1960s, The Small Faces are credited with having had a disproportionate influence on British pop music then and since, including Led Zeppelin, much of the punk movement and the Britpop phenomenon of the 1990s. All or Nothing seeks to tell their story through the eyes of Steve Marriott, lead singer, music writer and founder member.

The show opens with the gig that ended it all for The Small Faces on New Year’s Eve, 1968. Marriott is clearly frustrated and not enjoying playing, eventually storming offstage. How did one of the time’s most influential groups come to be in this state? Enter an older and wiser Marriott (Chris Simmons) to tell us the story as a younger cast act out significant scenes in the band’s history. So we see the young Marriott (Samuel Pope) as a mischievous rebel in school before performing in Oliver! in the West End; his meeting with bass guitarist and collaborator Ronnie Lane (Stanton Wright)  in the music shop in which Marriott worked; the formation of the original band with Jimmy Winston (Joseph Peters) on keys and Kenney Jones (Stefan Edwards) on drums; frustrations and the replacement of Winston with Ian McLagan (Josh Maddison); some of the notable steps on their way to chart success, including the mismanagement common at the time; and the disintegration of the band as time moves on. Simmons’ narrative drives the story on and provides a human voice to the episodes we see onstage. This is a good device and allows us to see the development of this complex character – albeit one whose only real ambition is to play R&B, true ‘Mod Music’.

However, the only other development we see is in the music. Small Faces songs are used to punctuate the story, appearing pretty much chronologically allowing us to see the growth of the group as songwriters and performers. From their first real hit, Watcha Gonna Do About It, through All Or Nothing, Itchycoo Park, Tin Soldier to the concept album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, we see the music develop in confidence and depth. What we don’t see is very much character development other than for Marriott. The episodic nature of the main narrative means that the other characters are two-dimensional, even caricatures, and we are left feeling as if we are observers knowing what happened but not always sure why.

The young cast playing The Small Faces brings musicianship and energy to the show. The musical numbers are lovingly recreated and fill the theatre with sound. But Carol Harrison’s writing is flat and subservient to the music, resulting in episodes that are disjointed with cameos of famous faces suddenly appearing and then disappearing again – so we meet Sonny and Cher briefly as they profess to be fans and we see caricatures of Juke Box Jury and of Tony Blackburn on Top of the Pops. Even the story of Marriott’s interest in, and eventual marriage to, Rod Stewart’s ex, Jenny Rylance, is matter-of-fact. It is not until the second half – as creative tensions build, the music becomes more mature and powerful and Simmons shows Marriott’s descent quite graphically – that the show really takes off, though even then we are frustrated by the hint of a storyline involving PP Arnold as she sings backing vocals for Tin Soldier. Nevertheless, Simmons does bring real emotion into the final few minutes with Marriott in introspective mood during the build up to that catastrophic gig when he leaves the band so violently. An imagined later dialogue with his mother, Kay (also played by Harrison) is the most powerful part of the show helped by being allowed time to develop. Simmons’ playing of All or Nothing, alone on the stage with a guitar, voice breaking with emotion, is electric.

Harrison also directs and ensures the pace of the show never lets up. The cast members do their best with what they have been given, but the plodding disjointed book hampers their efforts. It is only when the music is playing that it really takes off striking a chord with the fans of the band in the audience. But as a rounded piece, it doesn’t quite hit the target.

Runs until 8 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Doesn't Quite Hit The Target

User Rating: 3.05 ( 2 votes)

The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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