On Friday April 13, I saw the Small Faces “Mod Musical” All or Nothing, at the Ambassador Theater in London. It’s an excellent portrayal of a historically unsung band who were arguably Britain’s primary exponents of 1960s R&B – at least so far as they then expounded upon the genre – as well as being its nattiest dressers.
All Or Nothing is the brain-child of playwright Carol Harrison, a mod-ette of the era who grew up around the Small Faces’ East End stomping grounds and later became an East Enders star, and knew that there was a story here to tell – and to her credit, persisted with the project despite all the predictable opposition. (Harrison also plays the vital role of Steve Marriott’s mother, Kay, on stage – though not unfortunately, on the night I attended.)
Other than assembling a band of highly competent young musicians to play the parts of the band members, Harrison’s primary construct is to present the alcoholic ghost of an older Steve Marriott (played by The Bill’s Chris Simmons) as an occasional narrator; from the outset, we recognize the sadness behind the excessive exuberance of the frontman’s younger self (played with remarkable conviction by Samuel Pope).
Marriott’s self-destructive nature is perfectly offset by the more naturally optimistic portrayal of his band-mate – and best mate – Ronnie Lane (Stanton Wright), whose importance to the Small Faces’ songwriting and musicianship often goes unstated. The live band, in which Kenney Jones (Stefan Edwards) holds a firmly reliable back seat, takes a particularly fast turn when original keyboard player Jimmy Winston (Rikki Lawton) is replaced by Ian ‘Mac’ McLagan (Alexander Gold); hey, maybe it’s because I aspire to play the organ just half as good as Mac, but I thought Gold’s musical contribution to be the strongest.
All Or Nothing is not especially profound, but it gets at the demons that run through Marriott’s life – “that boy is drawn to danger,” Kay Marriott tells her husband early on – and portrays the all-too-familiar unraveling of a successful band right as it hits the peak of its creative prowess. The portrayals of manager Don Arden and entrepreneur Andrew Loog Oldham came across a little ham-fisted, but some of other character caricatures are quite hilarious – the audience was in stitches at the Tony Blackburn impersonation. Of the three actresses who played multiple supporting roles, Karis Anderson (from the group Stooshe) totally stole the show once she stepped into the singing shoes of PP Arnold.
My primary gripe was an all-too-familiar send-up of the 1960s northern working class, a cheap shot and one that wouldn’t stand up to closer inspection: East End loyalty aside, can anyone really claim that the Small Faces were any more authentic (or earlier on the scene) than Newcastle’s the Animals, or that Liverpool’s Cavern Club was less happening than London’s Eel Pie Island? There’s a similar disregard in the rude welcome that the Small Faces – alongside The Who, it goes unnoted – received from authority figures in Australia in 1968, which doesn’t allow for the impact they had on audiences there.
But these are relatively small complaints. The audience loved it, there was all due silence at the climactic beyond-the-grave conversation between Steve and his mother, and the rousing medley at the end (follow this link for footage) had us all on our feet. Equal parts musical celebration, cultural study and morality tale, All Or Nothing is nothing less than The Small Faces deserve.