Opera House, Manchester
Until Sat 22nd October 2016
Written by Carol Harrison
Directed by Tony McHale
Review by Mark Hazard
2.5 out of 5 stars
Here we go with another bloody ‘jukebox musical’. At least we get to hear some classic songs played live. But that’s about it. I went to see the show with a friend who actually saw the band live, in the 1960s (and even jumped on their car bonnet once), and she thought this show was rubbish (but she did enjoy hearing the songs, which is something).
Opening with a bang, the curtain rises, and the band are in full flow, belting out ‘Rolling Over’, and getting things off to a cracking start. Tim Edwards looks the spitting (and snarling) image of the young Steve Marriott, and has all the required onstage energy, moves, and barely-contained aggression. The song halts mid-way, as Steve loses his cool, and attempts to smash his guitar over the keyboards, but is frozen mid swing. So, the stage is set, and wandering in from the auditorium like a drunken, lank-haired Denis Waterman (not a pretty sight, I grant you), comes the older Steve (played with music hall gusto by a twinkly-eyed, semi psychotic Chris Simmons). Older Steve is our guide to the story of The Small Faces, and provides a cheery, half-sloshed account of the familiar rags-to-riches tale of four East End kids who came together to create the archetypal ‘Mod’ band.
The set looks like a 1960s East End back yard, although far more garishly-lit and cheerful, suggesting we’re in “gotta sing, gotta dance” OTT musical theatre land. Unfortunately we were. Everything about this show is brash, larger-than-life, with caricature performances, broad humour, and knockabout slapstick. Daniel Beales plays a range of characters, in a variety of (intentionally, one hopes) ill-fitting wigs, and provides some much-needed belly laughs with affectionate portraits of Tony Blackburn, Sonny Bono, and eccentric genius Stanley Unwin. It’s all very entertaining, energetic, and easy on the eye, but a little lazy. There’s no attempt to understand the various personalities, nor any analysis of their DNA, motivations, or psychology. As expected, the focus is on the multi-talented Steve Marriott, but it’s a thinly-sketched character. We’re presented with a stereotypically cheeky, impish cockney kid, setting fires in school wastepaper baskets, and larking about at the expense of his education. Marriott is keen to do his own thing – raucous, loud, ear-splitting rhythm ‘n blues, and gets a little miffed when ordered by his gangster of a manager, Don Arden (a blustering, menacing Russell Floyd) to sing more commercial ‘poppy’ stuff such as ‘Sha La La La Lee’. The thing is, though, that we never really get in to Marriott’s (or anybody else’s) head.
Simmons’ Older Steve is the real star of the show, giving glimpses of darkness, and irrepressible energy, and almost saves the day with a final symbolic/surreal confrontation with his brassy harridan of a mother, Kay (played with Barbara Windsor-esque restraint by writer Carole Harrison) which looks wildly out of place in such a brash circus of a production. This is basically a tribute band evening, which is no bad thing if that’s your can of Pepsi Max, but so many shows like this miss huge opportunities. Immense talents like Steve Marriott deserve so much more than a rehash of hit songs, and a perfunctory history lesson. What made the man tick? What’s the macro story? Rather than a chirpy, brightly-coloured, Willy Wonka style makeover of an episode of EastEnders, why not dig deeper, and wider? Add some depth. Use the strengths of live theatre. Oh, and we end with a sing-a-long, with Older Steve acting as ringmaster to cajole the audience to their feet for a less than impromptu standing ovation. I stayed sitting, of course.