‘All Or Nothing: The Mod Musical’ reviewed

East End Modfathers The Small Faces live, breathe and sing again in Carol Harrison’s energetic musical play.

Ah, the Small Faces. Despite being one of the underrated groups of the 1960s’ beat boom – always viewed as a lesser force than contemporaries The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks – they have a musical power and resonance beyond their era, as well as beyond the groups they toured with and played opposite.

Working class, sharply-dressed musical Mod novices, the band learned their instruments as they went along – guitar, bass, drums and, setting them apart in a crowded pop market place, keyboards – and were criticised for not being able to play, a charge levelled at the Sex Pistols some ten years later. In a way, the Small Faces were punks before their time; they disdained the screaming the teeny boppers who came to their shows, didn’t trust their managers, and the band’s frontman/guitarist Steve Marriott insulted the producer of the new BBC1 music show Top of the Pops, resulting in the ‘Faces being banned from the programme.

The Pistols’ Johnny Rotten would no doubt have approved (and, early in their career, the punk band covered the first Small Faces single, What’cha Gonna Do About It). Paul Weller of New Wave Mod revivalists The Jam, meanwhile, marvelled at the powerful soul voice that belted out of Marriott’s diminutive frame, to the point where it influenced his vocal style. Nearly twenty years after punk, the legacy of the Small Faces could be detected in the rhythm and blues, hard rock and psychedelic soundscapes of Blur, Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene and Weller’s solo career. What’s particularly sad about the Small Faces’ veneration by a succession of popular artists, is that Marriott was gone before he saw just how revered and loved they were.

Marriott himself was a fascinating mixture of ambition and self-destruction, and this duality is the thread that holds All or Nothing: The Mod Musical together (named after the ‘Faces’ urgent number 1 single that dislodged The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine from the top of the UK chart in 1966). The brilliant linking device is having the adult Marriott narrate the story from the beginning to the point where the shaggy haired 44 year-old, brilliantly played with a combination of East End gusto and cheek by Chris Simmons – arguably best known as Mickey Webb in The Bill – perished in a house fire in 1991. There’s certainly a metaphor here about the most brilliant talents burning bright, but not necessarily for long.

Aside from Simmons, the play’s greatest asset is having four Small Faces who can act, sing and play their instruments. Rather than shoe-horning tangentially connected songs into a narrative, the band play significant tunes chronologically live as the ‘Faces’ career gathers momentum: Lane and Marriott jam together in a music shop on the garage rock standard Louie Louie; play What’cha Gonna Do About It on seminal ITV pop show Ready Steady Go!, perform I’ve Got Mine on the BBC’s Juke Box Jury – and the jury’s reaction is very funny – all the way through to the band fragmenting on stage at Alexandra Palace on New Year’s Eve 1968.

Samuel Pope is a dead ringer for the young Marriott both vocally and physically, an engaging blend of nervous energy, great talent and self-sabotage, while Stanton Wright (as chirpy co-songwriter/bassist Ronnie Lane) and Josh Maddison (organist Ian McLagen) and Stefan Edwards (drummer Kenney Jones) are equally well cast. Together, the foursome exude in spades the gang mentality that made the band such a musical force to be reckoned with.

Around the band, Joseph Peters makes a stylish impression as Jimmy Winston, the flash Mod who first inspired Marriott, but was sacked from the ‘Faces for competing with the singer and, amusingly, being ‘too tall’. The play’s writer Caroline Harrison is a formidable presence in beehive and mini-dress as Steve’s mum Kay, while the versatile Daniel Beales turns in brilliant cameos as one half of Sonny and Cher, together with Tony Blackburn, David Jacobs and Stanley Unwin, the latter a key part of the ‘Faces’ potty masterpiece Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake.

The Small Faces did indeed burn bright and fast, were fleeced by their managers Don Arden and Andrew Loog Oldham and, like the critical recognition they so richly deserved, Marriott and Lane never saw any of the vast amount of money they made in their intense five-year run. Simmons is very moving as he slips into middle-aged, drunken disappointment, the mood darkening as he’s powerless to prevent his younger self from making the band crash and burn. As, alone, Marriott-Simmons plucks out the chords to All or Nothing on an acoustic guitar and almost whispers the lyrics, you’re made poignantly aware of the fickle nature of fame and celebrity.

Elsewhere, though, his eyes shine when he enthuses about music. He marvels at the passion in the vocals of Dusty Springfield and PP Arnold (Sophia Benn and Melissa Brown-Taylor, both staggeringly good), and this, in the end, is All or Nothing’s message: inspiring music rises above everything. In the performance I saw, the medley of Small Faces’ hits that followed Marriott-Simmons’ affecting eulogy brought a cheering audience to its feet in a valedictory salute to the band’s career. You can’t argue with the sheer, life-affirming rush of Here Come the Nice, Sha-La-La-La Lee, Itchycoo Park, Tin Soldier, Lazy Sunday and, of course, All or Nothing. The whole cast entered into the spirit of the vivid songs, with Peters-Winston getting his own turn at the microphone – “Who said I was too fucking tall?” – and the production’s three go-go dancers leaving the stage to encourage the audience to go-go along with them.

“For an affectionate, joyous and commendably unsentimental look at the rise and fall of one of the unsung, defining bands of 1960s British pop – and the 1960s generally – this play can’t be bettered.”

All or Nothing: The Mod Musical is so good I wish I’d gone back to see it the next day. For an affectionate, joyous and commendably unsentimental look at the rise and fall of one of the unsung, defining bands of 1960s British pop – and the 1960s generally – this play can’t be bettered. It says a lot that Steve Marriott’s daughter Mollie is the vocal coach and creative consultant on the production.

A few of the more grey-haired members of the audience has seen the Small Faces in their heyday and were astounded by how good the All or Nothing ‘Faces were. You can’t get more authentically Mod than that.

❉ ‘All or Nothing: The Mod Musical’  is on tour throughout 2017. For more information click here.

 Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.

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