There are three formulas that have evolved for staging a juke box musical: tell the story of the band (Jersey Boys, Sunny Afternoon); piggyback the songs on to an original story (Mama Mia!, Girl From the North Country); or just have a bunch of people play the music as in the dreadful Let It Be, which was no more than an average Beatles tribute band at West End prices.
Writer/director Carol Harrison has opted for the story-of-the-band approach to chart the rise and fall of sixties group the Small Faces.
Fronted by vocalist and guitarist Steve Marriott, the Small Faces were massive in their heyday, scoring chart success with their brand of R&B influenced pop before moving, as the decade progressed, into an appealing form of psychedelic whimsy — but without ever losing their edge.
It’s a story close to Harrison’s heart. She grew up in the East End, as did the boys, and knew Steve Marriott as a child (she also stars as the singer’s mother Kay). The production has a further personal touch in that Marriott’s daughter Mollie is part of the production team as vocal coach and consultant.
The problem is that despite their musical appeal, the actual story of the Small Faces isn’t enough to fill a two-hour-plus musical. Some scallywags form a band, become successful, get some girls and get ripped off, before falling out and splitting up. It’s not much of a dramatic arc, nor an original one – it applies to hundreds of pop acts over the years.
Everything here is played very one note. Harrison captures the boys’ cheeky chappie cockney persona but stays in that groove pretty much throughout. When their first manager – the notorious Don Arden (Russell Floyd), who wasn’t adverse to dishing out physical intimidation – threatens to throw rival impresario Robert Stigwood out of an office window, it’s played as a piece of slapstick comedy rather than the violent and scary encounter that it obviously was.
Frankly, the whole thing is clumsily directed and poorly played with a script by way of the group’s Wikipedia page; ticking off events in chronological order with every small detail, however irrelevant, squeezed in. Chris Simmons stalks the stage as an older, dead Marriott narrating the story, but this contrivance doesn’t always work and Simmons is often left parked stage left or right just watching the action. By the time a bit of emotion is introduced as the band disintegrates, it’s all too late.
It’s not all bad, though. When the boys take up their instruments they make a tight and lively little group, with Samuel Pope perfectly capturing the mannerisms of Marriott and making a pretty decent fist of portraying one of the best rock vocalists Britain has produced.
Daniel Beales is the stand out from a hard-working ensemble, with nice comic turns as Tony Blackburn, Sonny of Sonny and Cher and David Jacobs.
A period pop culture piece like this is always going to appeal to a fairly narrow demographic, but All or Nothing doesn’t work on any level. For those who know, many references will feel shoehorned in, and those who don’t will often be left wondering what the hell is going on.
All or Nothing: The Mod Musical is at the Arts Theatre, London until 11 March and will then move to the Ambassadors Theatre from 28 March until 2 June
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