Review – Sunny Afternoon, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th & 11th January 2017

Sunny AfternoonYes, gentle reader, you did read that title correctly. I loved the new touring production of Sunny Afternoon so much that I had to go back to see it again on the matinee the next day. The only other time that we were so overwhelmed by a show that we had to see it the next day was for the brilliant Mr Whatnot – if you were lucky enough to catch it, give yourself a huge pat on the back in self-congratulation.

sa9Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see Sunny Afternoon in London two years ago, and, for my reflections on what the show’s about, its structure and so on, I can’t do better than to refer you to my original review. I could finish there, really, but seeing as you asked so nicely, I’ll continue. The show tells the story of The Kinks; how they formed, their early days, how they put together those iconic guitar riffs, how their success exploded under their posh management duo, Wace and Collins; how they got into trouble in America, how they interacted with one another, and how their relationship with their managers ended. All this to the accompaniment of Ray Davies’ beautiful, melancholic, introverted, enthusiastic, heart-warming lyrics and melodies.

sa16They didn’t rip out the first few rows of seats at the Derngate to create cabaret tables like they did at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter theatre. They did, however, have that very useful apron that allows the cast to catwalk into the auditorium, and if you’re seated close to it you get an exciting sense of extra stage dimension. It really enhances the relationship between the performers and the audience, and is also a great view for appreciating the 1960s Pan’s People-type choreography. I’d say the ideal place to sit would be centre stalls, one row further back from where the apron ends. You’re welcome.

sa10Having a different cast performing in different theatres inevitably sometimes changes the emphasis of the show. This time round, I was much more struck by the irony of the group’s prohibition from working in America; working class lads being caught out by the intricacies of union dues. When Mr Sinatra’s representative tells them to look after their teamsters, they (unsurprisingly) haven’t got a clue what he’s on about. There’s a nice nod to McCarthyism with the suggestion that both Ray Davies’ wife Rasa (Lithuanian) and their baby (a baby) must be communists. Ray’s retort that the UK gave her refuge when she and her family were in need sounds (sadly) like historical rhetoric in these post-Brexit days. When they’re in America, they’re very uncomfortable fish out of waters.

sa7The other aspect of the show that was more pointedly highlighted in this production is the extreme youth (but not naïveté) of Dave Davies. He can’t sign the agreement with the managers because he is only 16, so his father is required to do to it for him. And when the band starts to do well, and the fans start throwing themselves at them – well, Dave instantly has girls on tap, and there’s no doubting that he enjoyed more than his fair share. Easy access to drugs and drink clearly isn’t beneficial to Dave’s health. But the show is very forgiving of him – he’s “just Dave” – and with all that self-indulgence, the show would have you believe he simply had a pretty darn good time. His big on-stage fight with drummer Mick really did happen; it’s presented in the show almost as a pantomime, with the copper running after him, wagging his truncheon almost Benny Hill-style, but in reality, he needed sixteen stitches to the head.

sa3So why did I enjoy this revisiting this production two years on so much that I had to go again the next day? Primarily, I think, it was because of the music. That early scene, where Ray and Dave are perfecting the guitar intro to You Really Got Me, got my goosebumps jumping like Mexican beans; and it gets louder, and it gets rawer, and it gets unruly – and I really loved it. I think I already knew at that stage I had to come back. In the second act, Andrew Gallo, as Mick, gives us a truly exciting and delightfully reckless drum solo, that really stands out. At the other end of the scale, Lisa Wright performs I Go To Sleep with the most painfully poignant expression; you can almost feel the emotional gulps in each word – and it’s a stunning arrangement by Elliott Ware. Her performance as Rasa is outstanding throughout the whole show. That’s definitely one of Sunny Afternoon’s strengths – how it takes an original Kinks song and then covers it in a truly creative way. The acapella performance of that lovely old song, Days, for example, puts a strongly emotional slant on it, the five guys singing barbershop style, led with beautiful clarity by Joseph Richardson as Robert Wace.

sa13Of course, any production is going to rely heavily on the actor playing Ray, and in Ryan O’Donnell, they’ve come up with an absolute cracker. Not only is he the spitting image of the young Ray, he sings like him, recreating his phrasing perfectly; he portrays the character’s quiet determination, his artistic imperative to create the best recording possible, and his emotional vulnerability. Ray isn’t all about sparkly charisma and showbiz pizazz, he’s the guy who observes the crack up in the ceiling, who quietly gazes on Waterloo sunset, who’s not like everybody else. Mr O’Donnell carries it off brilliantly. As his madcap and uncontrollable brother, Mark Newnham plays Dave like the school misfit, mischievously contrary whenever he can be, playing the idiot because it gets him the best attention. He handles the guitar like a dream, and is out to screw the last remaining jot of pleasure out of anything and everything (and everyone) he does – which probably is a very good representation of the real Dave.

sa15Garmon Rhys’ Pete is the perfect downtrodden sidekick; completely unsuitable for a world where he is on show, a simple man thrust into a complex limelight, and he doesn’t like it. When he tells Ray why he wants to leave the band, it’s very hard for the audience not to respond with a big pantomime “aaaaah”. Andrew Gallo’s Mick is an unsophisticated bruiser but his heart’s in the right place; but, primarily, provider of great drum accompaniment. Joseph Richardson and Tomm Coles as Wace and Collins are a great posh boy double act, and Michael Warburton brings a steely edge to his role as music publisher Kassner. I also really liked Robert Took and Deryn Edwards as (amongst others) Mr and Mrs Davies Senior, the decent, respectable but poor people living on Dead End Street.

sa1When they all come out for the final rock concert scene, with a mix of All Day, Lola, and You Really Got Me, it’s such an exhilarating and feelgood sensation to be upfront close to that performance. I absolutely loved it. So did Mrs C, who was, frankly, jealous of my return trip the next day. No need for you to be jealous – go and see it! The tour continues into May, visiting Cardiff, Nottingham, Oxford, Liverpool, Llandudno, York, Bradford, Bristol, Dublin, Canterbury, Norwich, Wolverhampton, Belfast and Plymouth. If you remember the Kinks with affection, or want to appreciate a chance to revisit their songs in a new setting, this show is definitely for you. And if, like me, you saw the original London show and think there’s no need to see it again, think again – this new cast is an absolute knockout!

Production photos by Kevin Cummins

Review – Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter Theatre, 29th December 2014

Sunny AfternoonIf 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.

The KinksI’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.

Resign or notSo 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.

Ray and RasaJoe 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.

Mr Davies SnrFor 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 Kinks in Concertso 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.

Kinks in AmericaThe 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.

John DagleishThe 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 George Maguirewas 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.

Davies BrothersThere’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.

Dave getting randyThere 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.