If you’re like me, you can’t think of the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon without instantly singing to yourself, “the taxman’s taken all my dough and left me in my stately home”; although I always thought it was the even more savage, “the taxman’s taken all my dole and left me in my stately hole”. Those old songs really are steeped in emotion. If you grew up with the Kinks, you’ll probably find that each of their songs brings back a particular memory, a moment, or a sensation. Dead End Street always reminds me of the first time I heard it, as a little kid, being astounded at the pounding introduction and even more so at the whispering “yeah!” fade out. Days always takes me back to sharing a study with my best friend when we were at university, desperately trying to cobble together essays on English literature against the clock.
I’ve always thought the Kinks have been vastly underrated in the annals of modern culture, with Ray Davies’ songs being easily comparable to Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richard. In many respects they bridged the gap between the Beatles and the Stones. On one side, John Lennon wrote about “me” – “there are places I remember all my life…”, “is there anybody going to listen to my story….”- and Paul McCartney delicately crafted characters and places like Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane; on the other the Stones created the full rock guitar experience with songs like Satisfaction and Paint It Black whilst still incorporating thoughtful meaningful lyrics. Somewhere between the two Ray Davies and the Kinks could give you the introspective vision of Terry and Julie meeting at the Waterloo Sunset or the observation of the tiny caterpillar in Autumn Almanac, but still offering the full on rock attack of All Day and All of the Night, the gritty realism of Dead End Street, the wistful reminiscence of Days or the feel-good humour of Lola.
So a musical featuring the works of the Kinks is a nice idea. Would it be like Mamma Mia, where the songs of Abba get mish-mashed to create an original story, or would it actually tell the story of the group themselves? The Kinks’ songs are so full of story-telling technique that I am sure they would work well in the Mamma Mia model. But Sunny Afternoon (the musical) tells the journey of Ray, Dave and their mates and how they came to get a record contract, how they got their name, how Ray started to write songs of exquisite quality, how Dave was a loose cannon, how Mick kept on feeling like he wasn’t wanted, how they weren’t accepted in America, how they dealt with female fans, and, by ending with a rock concert finale, how their songs are still great today.
Joe Penhall’s book is adapted from Ray Davies’ own original story of the Kinks, so we can assume that pretty much everything you see on stage is factually true. The songs adapt very well to reflecting the group’s birth, rise and fall; it all develops organically, and nothing feels forced or unnatural. Of course, I was just a nipper when the Kinks were at their height but I always felt I had an extra link to them as my cousin was friends with Ray Davies – not that I ever met him. So there was plenty for me to discover about the group. I wasn’t aware of the all the legal wrangles that beset the group, nor of how they came a-cropper in the States due to the Union rules, and in fact were banned from performing there. I’d also forgotten what a wild lad Dave Davies was. Some of the best parts of the show are where you see the creative process in action – how did they get those brilliant guitar riffs on the early singles? How did the Davies family home inspire Dead End Street? The music creates its own drama, and it feels very exciting.
For this production, they’ve given the insides of the Harold Pinter (I still think of it as the Comedy) something of an internal rip-out. The front couple of rows and the back few rows have been converted to cabaret tables. Additionally, the middle seats have been removed from the first seven or so rows and been replaced by a catwalk, so that the action can come further into the audience, giving a greater sensation of everything happening around you. Mrs Chrisparkle and I opted for one of the front cabaret tables – a table for two just to the right side of the stage. You certainly feel as though you’re in the heart of the action, but this location is not for the fainthearted. Steps just to the right of us led up to the stage, and as cast members bounded up and down them I frequently felt the need to grab hold of my merlot so that it didn’t topple over with the vibration. Your ears are also perilously close to a whopping great speaker – when the first few notes were played at the start of the show, Mrs C virtually leapt into the air with aural anguish and spent the next minute or so creating earplugs out of tissues. There’s a lot of looking up to do – otherwise your eyes look directly at the performers’ feet – and unless you twist your back round at about 135 degrees, you can’t see what’s happening on the catwalk. However, despite all those quibbles, I really enjoyed our perspective on the show! You become something more than just audience when you’re that close, you’re really participating too; and the impact of the music is outstanding.
The set is simple but intricate – the walls are lined from top to bottom with speakers. All around, everywhere you look, woofers and tweeters abound. The emphasis is all on the music – and, as you would expect with all those speakers, it’s loud. The show is directed by Edward Hall, best known for his work with the all-male Shakespeare company Propeller – we saw their Henry V a few years ago and I was very impressed with the company’s sense of ensemble. You very much sense it in this show too, so it must be one of Mr Hall’s strong points. The choreography is by Adam Cooper, and you can’t get much more impressive a name-check than that.
The performances are great – both musically and in the story-telling. John Dagleish plays Ray Davies and does indeed have something of the look of the young Ray about him. Quirky, funny, gritty – rather like his songs in fact. Ned Derrington and Adam Sopp play the lesser known band members Pete and Mick with great 60s aplomb and attitude, but probably the best performance of the night is by George Maguire as Dave Davies – a real, unpredictable, wild child, oozing mischief, and with an overriding desire to have a good time. From our vantage point, I could see that Mr Maguire was Absolutely Loving It. The final scene converts into a full on concert party, with the guys reprising all the best boppy Kinks numbers and Mr Maguire encourages us all to get on our feet and bop along. When I stood up, he looked at me with a big grin as if to say “you too, old geezer? Good on ya!” It made me feel quite welcome. However, perhaps the vocal highlight of the show comes a few minutes earlier when the four guys perform an acapella rendition of Days, which only the hardest of hearts wouldn’t find emotional.
There’s another excellent double act in the show – Dominic Tighe as Robert Wace and Tam Williams as Grenville Collins, two rather posh characters who end up representing the Kinks as Management in a rather hit-and-miss manner. Messrs Tighe and Williams really play up the toffee-nosed aspects of their characters without ever drifting into caricature, and they provide a lot of fun. We’d seen Mr Tighe a couple of times before, in the touring production of Barefoot in the Park and in the excellent Charley’s Aunt at the Menier, but he’d kept his musical ability quiet in those shows, so I was surprised to discover he’s really a very good singer! And we both loved Lillie Flynn as Rasa, Ray’s wife, giving great vocal support to the band numbers but also singing solo with great emotion – her performance of I Go To Sleep was a knockout. But everyone gives strong, enjoyable performances and there isn’t a weak spot anywhere; and you have to give a mention to the terrific band, directed by Elliott Ware, and the high octane guitar playing by Pete Friesen.
There are a couple of sins of omission; although the story is primarily seen from Ray’s point of view it would have been great to have at least one of Dave’s songs there as well – preferably Death of a Clown. I also missed Autumn Almanac, which is hippy quirkiness at its best, the cynical Plastic Man and the surreal Victoria. Still, you can’t have everything. It’s a feel-good show that brings the Kinks firmly back to the limelight where they belong. Irresistibly enjoyable, a perfect party show with great music and musical performances but also telling a strong story with a good sense of its time. I spent the following four days unable to get Kinks’ songs out of my head! If you’re a fan of the group, you’ll love this show – and if you’re undecided, I bet you’ll be fan by the time you go home.