All Or Nothing review at Coventry Belgrade
 

 

faces group

All Or Nothing

Coventry Belgrade

*****

Steve Marriott, lead singer of The Small Faces, one of the greatest of all British Rhythm and Blues singers, was just 12 when he was given a ukulele and got together his first group.

In a sense, this explosive quartet were all still boys – upper teens – when they formed the group Small Faces. They were all pretty small (5’4” to 5’6”) when they started out (maybe they grew a fraction).

Steve’s friend Annabel once quipped ‘You’ve all got such small faces’. They liked that. And, partly because a ‘Face’, or ‘Ace Face’, was the nickname for a ‘Top Mod’ who was especially admired, an ultra-cool smoothie, the title stuck.

This is a super show. It wins on every count: delicious leads, support cast, direction, set, costumes, movement: but above all, it scores because of the stupendous music, and the sensational foursome who make up this phenomenally alive tribute band. It has an Expressionistic, joyously in your face feel. It’s a piece of serious theatre.

There have been previous incarnations for this show, but this is a team you cannot fault: Samuel Pope (Marriott junior); Stanton Wright (Ronnie Lane, his frequent and notable co-writer), Stefan Edwards (drummer/cofounder Kenney Jones); and Joseph Peters (keyboardist/guitarist Jimmy Winston, who is soon ditched because the feisty Marriott sees him as a threat: ‘can’t play, and he’s too fucking tall’).

There’s an irony: the rival in this up to the mark cast is Josh Maddison (as replacement keyboardist Ian McLagan), whose demure manner and initial lack of ego makes him the perfect foil – or rival – to the smug, dark-glasses (Marriott adored Buddy Holly, but these were more John Lennon), cocky, preening, bossy Marriott.

There’s a charming, well researched narrative behind this show, and it’s delightfully funny and ironic and touching too. That’s down to Carol Harrison, who here proves an inspired writer-cum-biographer of the famed original group.

Her narrative is beautifully structured, growing from their formation in early 1965, and the success of their stunning launch hit Whatcha Gonna Do About It, through their number one - this show’s title, the rip-roaring All or Nothing (‘we knocked The Beatles Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby off their perch!’) in summer 1966, when ‘Muhammed Ali knocked down Henry Cooper, and England won the Cup’).

It progresses, with an admirably, intelligently sculpted storyline, through several stonking hits – Itchycoo Park (Marriott/Lane), Sha La La La Lee, Tin Soldier: in fact there were numerous others, penned for albums.

 

There’s no denying one keeps longing for this phenomenal team to strike up again, because Pope’s singing (Marriott, deriding ‘this Mersey Beat shit’, was almost as famed as Jagger for the power of his vocals) is so staggeringly good, and his moves – rubbery neck, elastic body, pliant everything – so galvanising, that his performance is simply knockout.

That he’s a smartypants and knowall, moody, resentful, hoochy-coochy, proud of his topstitching dandy plus I-want-it-all-my-own-way spoilt child is all part of the character and, dare one say it, part of the charm.

Pope’s Steve’s East End accent is a dead ringer for Nicholas Lyndhurst in Only Fools and Horses. This ‘young’ Marriott, born in 1947, grew up in Manor Park, north-east London ‘where there were bombsites and no bathrooms’; Samuel Pope hit the nail on the head: his incisive take on Steve would have been impossible or ghastly to work with; and it’s his frustrations (late 1968, the year their psychedelic album reached number one) that finally spells an end to these R&B and Chicago Blues heroes, after just four years (1969).

But Marriott is musically ambitious, self-driven and uncompromising, and you know that it’s not just about self, it’s about his aspirations for the music. Pope captures this driven, self-critical, aggressive, strutting, gum-chewing, cigarette-ash character to perfection.

There are some older roles – not lesser parts, but crucial – who help him along or get in his way; they also perform a number of wittily contrived cameo entrances and exits. Harrison herself both directs – to wonderful effect - and plays Steve’s supportive, controlling, fearful (as he moves dangerously, potentially fatally, into drugs) Mom – Kay Marriott – in a gaggle of stylish costumes (all the female support dancers, Fran Dearlove, Daisy Darvill, Katie Faye, Melissa Brown-Taylor (who has a lively quick turn as PP Arnold), Sophia Behn, are exquisitely clad – a host of incipient multicolour mini-skirts not least, and just as eye-catchingly in their occasional named roles (e.g. Behn as a wonderfully naffly-clad Dusty Springfield, and stylish girlfriend Jenny).

The Costume Designer is Charlotte Espiner, but the credits go further: Angie Johnson (Hair and Wigs Design (and there were some corkers); plus Poppy Farren and Victoria Marshall, who collaborated on costume and wigs alike (true, Alfie Harrison-Foreman, in his minimal appearance as Rod Stewart, needed some hair styling). Harrison includes one hilarious scene, when in Carnaby Street or wherever, the four boys are kitted out by their Manager in new fancy jackets. Their excitement in being let loose and rifling through the clotheshorses, abetted by three scarlet-miniskirted shopgirls, is enchantment itself. Still kids.

Not just Sound Designer Chris Drohan, but the entire on-the-spot Sound Engineers team came out with top marks: the sound from the speakers was never tiresome or tedious, never overegged: the band’s balances felt spot-on for the Belgrade’s auditorium, and for this (older, Steeleye Span generation) audience. The spoken text didn’t deafen, either.   

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Meanwhile Peter Small, the Lighting Designer, seemed to get most things in the right place too: bright and alive when the mood lifted, dimmed and dismal on what seemed to double as the sitting room and Steve’s own bedroom, like some fusty beige-brown outdoor hoarding caked in CND posters and Beatles or Elvis stickers, plus the odd handwritten ‘MODS’ (the inspiration squares with a background to Marriott’s Oliver recording, or its source).

Small also found a range of colours, none of them inept, which enlivened the look of Rebecca Brower’s well-conceived set no end; psychedelia – a bit, but never inappropriate or wrong for the date: not anachronistic end-Sixties or mid-Seventies.

There is another key character, not yet mentioned, but Harrison’s finest inspiration of all. A lighting follow-spot often picked out Chris Simmons. Pope is classed as ‘Young Steve Marriott’ but Simmons depicts the ‘older’ Steve. He takes over the frontman running of the show, as Steve 44, precisely double his age in 1968 (22). Coincidentally, the former is almost exactly Simmons’ own age.

This Steve in early middle age has (as in real life) mellowed: we are given a benign, affable observer, but still a wisecracker. The cockiness has become cheeriness, the frustration – and desperation – has become maturity and experience. He now has nothing to prove. He is not up against himself, or battling others. He is generous-hearted, confidential, if not drug- or cigarette-free, and benignly looks back on his star-struck younger self, making allowances for himself and for all of them.

Marriott actually died at 44 (in 1991), and we are meant by Harrison to see Simmons as in a sense a ghost, a spirit, a benevolent guardian Angel, rather than a living older being; although he skilfully manages to be both.

Simmons acts as compère, and both keeps the audience entertained and casts a spell over events, so that we get his take on the hopes and joys, the initial optimism, their musical heroes of the late Fifties and early Sixties, their ambition to become the new R&B band, the blistering hard work, their soaring though not guaranteed success, the incipient tensions, the coexistence. the disillusionment (mainly of Steve himself) and the premature breakup.  

Mum and dad

Simmons is casual, funny, sensible, serious, curiously wise: he floats around, mingling with the actors but unseen. He explains some of their actions and irritations, but does not try to overjustify. He is critical but also admiring. He allows nostalgia to creep in, and takes us with him. He would maybe not have come up with one line of his younger self: ‘We were swinging like Hanratty’: a refined synonym of exquisitely appalling taste.

But he is also witty, clever (in a pleasantly modest way), perceptive, a natty mover, and a slick, snappy deliverer of his lines. By raising or lowering the temperature, he proves a vital element in the show’s balance, a mediator for the band’s communication with its audience. He is sanity, but that doesn’t stop him being a cheeky chappie.

As a thirteen-year-old-boy, before he got his ukulele and harmonica, Steve Marriott was recruited to the London cast of Oliver, and if he didn’t get to act the Artful Dodger (or did he?) he provided the memorable vocals for three Dodger songs on the 1960 disc, including Consider Yourself  (you can hear him still, on YouTube1 or YouTube2

Pope’s Steve has still got some of Dodger about him. (his forebear gathered his famous cap from several idols, but maybe the Dodger was one.) Steve Marriott was a genius on the harmonica, which features in Pope’s opening sequence, which sounds oddly like Johnny and the Hurricanes, and for which Brower’s set (a see-through red telephone box, complete with A and B buttons, is one of the period treats) contrives to have the rear wall split and the whole rock ’n roll platform, musicians and all, trundled out.

There are some splendid ‘old’ geezers (presumably in their forties). Russell Floyd, another The Bill and Eastenders star, carries off a number of roles, including an irascible music shop owner who fires Steve - but not before he has met up with Ronnie Lane and Kenney Jones. Floyd then plays Don Arden, their first Manager, ‘the Al Capone of Pop’, but more of a Fagin who raises them to £30 a week (a fortune) yet then drops them back to £20; and spends a real fortune in backhanders to hoist their first hit  into the charts. Kenney described him later as ‘a kind of Jewish teddy bear, I guess’, and Floyd is indeed cuddly, though deviousness goes with the job.

He pays them late. Sometimes he doesn’t pay at all. In the end he supposedly fleeces them.

But it is he who makes them the stars, just as he worked with Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Nashville Teens, The Move and Black Sabbath. Floyd has a splendid onstage persona: you sense he could do Shakespeare effortlessly, both the comics and the grandees; and with a RADA, RSC and National Theatre background, he’s in that mould (‘Arden’s an apt name). Even when Don’s wangling or kidding the kids, you can’t help but like him. They put themselves in his reassuring hands, and though there follow some stand-up rows, till they finally put the knife in, you feel for a time it’s all going to be OK with this domineering but streetwise, savvy uncle.

One of many touching scenes is when Ian McLagan (Josh Maddison turns in a series of cameo sequences as Ian, and they all shine), having battled past a garishly green-clad, indifferent, magazine-ogling receptionist, is getting the lookover from Floyd, before being signed to his agency and hence to the band.

Maddison presents a shy, un-self-opinionated lad, a bit deferential, probably nervous. It could all go wrong. But McLagan gets the job, and becomes a key part of the band’s abandoned success.

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So it’s all the more riveting when Maddison takes the vociferous lead in demanding a raise and a cut from the records (they get both – ‘you’ve got balls’ says the defeated Arden), and yet again, when he confronts the younger new Manager, Andrew Oldham, and loses his rag. There’s steel, it seems, in the young keyboard player: and he plays it like an over the top Fats Waller. It’s more than a neat performance. He’s terrific.

The other star oldie is Daniel Beales. He starts off as Steve’s printer dad (Bill Marriott), who goes on to open a jellied eel stall and then gravitates to pie and mash, but who hides behind a paper (sidesplittingly comical and pure parody) whenever anything contentious crops up, and leaves Kay (mum) to sort everything out, most notably the recalcitrant young Steve.

He’s on the khazi when his lad appears on TV: mum is distraught. But it’s Bill who bought him that ukulele, and Bill who successfully put him up for Oliver, thus giving him a taste for the musical stage. Beales has a sequence of amusing parts, all played in deliciously corny manner, including a beefy bouncer-cum-bodyguard for wary Don Arden.

He’s droll as a northern-accented bar owner who gives the band the unceremonious boot when his clients boo. But where he’s an absolute hoot is as two roles who help the boys climb the ladder: as the future Mayor and Congressman Sonny Bono (alongside Katie Faye’s fey Cher), and as Tony Blackburn (naturally we also get David Jacobs, with Martin Teall an amusing supposedly pro jury member). In both, Angie Johnson kits Beales out with an elongated, droopy, page-boy, Beatles-era black wig, which the audience loved. The fact that he looks more like Benny Hill, with a trio of bathing beauties waving their boobs behind him, is no disincentive to laugh heartily.

This story is a tragedy; indeed, some have said Steve’s tale, which ended in death by fire at his home (he had been accused of arson at his secondary school, which he denied) is a Greek Tragedy. Yet so much of the show is positive, ground-breaking, daring, questing, energised, there are so many diverting, wacky touches, and the acting is so believable – this musical quartet can act every bit as much as play (Marriott had originally trained as an actor) - that it’s like a very finely-tuned tragicomedy. It has all the ingredients. You laugh and cry with the group, and laugh or dote or split your sides at the extras. It’s marvellously polished: every aspect of it works like clockwork.

That includes the other singers/actors: Stanton Wright’s Ronnie Lane – a songwriter who teamed up with Marriott on many notable numbers – is steady, reliable, tightly concentrated, a sort of Bill Wyman level-headed type, focusing on the music in contrast to Marriott’s antics, until he jumps on to the oriental mysticism bandwagon. Stefan Edwards’ Kenney is similar – a musician first and foremost, not a gratuitous entertainer, whose excellence on his drum kit gains one’s total admiration. Jones, 16 in 1964, had dreamed that they were on Thank Your Lucky Stars, and his naïve excitement when it actually happens is lovely and infectious.

Joseph Peters as Jimmy gives us good evidence of why he got the boot: proud of his scooter, but overconfident and upward climbing, he gets on everybody’s wick as well as Steve’s. And he is – infuriatingly – tall. You do think, however, that he could play Buddy Holly, or Hank B. Marvin – or someone similar.     

Don Arden committed one unforgivable: he tried to wrench the band away from their Rhythm and Blues roots: something Marriott, and Lane, could never tolerate or forgive. ‘It’s got to be based on R&B and soul’ clamours a disillusioned, embittered Lane. Well, we certainly got a lot of that, and mighty fine and fabulously musical it was. This foursome could go on the road tomorrow, guitars, drums, keyboard and all, and make a memorable showing. They’re all young. Who knows - some of them may.

Roderic Dunnett

05-17

A revealing ten-minute Steve Marriott interview from 1985: CLICK HERE 

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