Sunny Afternoon – Aylesbury Waterside

Book: Joe Penhall
Music and Lyrics: Ray Davies
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Pete Benson

Ray Davies certainly wears his heart on his sleeve in this musical that tells the early history of his band, The Kinks. As well as being an icon of early Brit-Pop, Davies has some previous form as a writer of theatre musicals too and it shows. Although the script is by the talented Joe Penhall (Blue Orange) it has a devised feel about it, which is no bad thing. This is certainly no jukebox musical scrambling to get to the next song. At times the music is incorporated brilliantly into the story as songs move the action along, reveal inner psychological turmoil or become almost operatic conversation. This is a very stylish and stylised piece with the feel of lots of ensemble improvisation techniques telling a rich story of family roots, sibling rivalry, class tension and the murky world of the music business.

The ghost of Davies’ sister, Rene, is a large presence in the proceedings. Her gift to him was music in the shape of a guitar, a thirteenth birthday present. He is driven by the need to capture the last song his sister sang to him, the day she died. This song he can’t quite remember becomes a talisman and it is as if Davies is a conduit to music beyond his control.

The whole show takes place on a magnificent set built of huge walls of stylish hi-fidelity speakers, which, coincidentally, perfectly match the auditorium of the Waterside Theatre. Perhaps the set is just a bit too fussy at times, competing with the onstage action. Visually Sunny Afternoon perfectly captures the mythical 60s with its miniskirts, long hair and excesses.

A strong, energetic, musically talented cast, power the show along. Of course, the four stars are the Kinks themselves. As a counterpoint to the self-doubting, tortured poet Davies played in fine voice by Ryan O’Donnell is Mark Newnham as his debauched, sexually experimental, chemically fuelled brother Dave. Newnham and O’Donnell have excellent chemistry which is at its best when they duet the song, A Long Way From Home which has both a tenderness and an underlying hostility.

‘You’ve come a long way from the runny-nosed and scruffy kid I knew. You had such good ways.’

Drummer Mick Avory is portrayed by exceptionally talented drummer Andrew Gallo who has a fantastic drum solo after the interval. Perhaps it’s a writer’s joke that a drum solo should be included in a musical about Rock ‘n’ Roll? Gallo also gives a superb acting performance as does Garmon Rhys who plays the sensitive Pete Quaife who loses his way amid the rise to fame and actual physical fights on stage between the rowing band members. Robert Took portrays a wonderfully loudmouthed, grotesque Allen Klein, the American accountant notorious for renegotiating contracts and devouring famous bands.

Penhall’s writing is strong, lots of jokes about the as yet unwritten future, ‘You wouldn’t catch Lennon lying around in bed all day’. The script is strong on the politics of the time, with some uncomfortable parallels with the here and now. Of their troubled times in America with the corrupt, mafia-run unions, Davies’ character says, ‘We were the only socialist band in business brought down by the unions’.

Perhaps the show is a tad too long, perhaps the scene in America could be a little shorter and other scenes edited down a bit where things are repeated. Very occasionally, the always wonderful, lyrics are lost in the sound mix.

The music is the gift of this show. When the opening riff toYou Really Got Meis played for the first time it lifts the hairs on the back of your neck but we are also being played with. They use the riff to demonstrate the creation of the Kinks’ sound until in all its defiant rebellious glory it raises those very hairs again. An outstanding a cappella version of, Days, demonstrates just how strong Davies’ songs are. This is a four-star show with five-star music. I urge you to go and see it.

Runs until 1 October 2016 | Image:Kevin Cummins

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