Book: Joe Penhall
Music/Lyrics: Ray Davies
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
As the latest big-hitting West End juke-box musical prepares for its final weeks in London, the Sunny Afternoon tour team is on the road to play the length and breadth of the UK, starting in Manchester.
Let’s be honest, if you’re not a Kinks fan you probably won’t be considering investing in a ticket for Sunny Afternoon. If you are, then the stakes are high. Not only do you want a great night out at the theatre, you also want a blindingly convincing tribute act. Once things get going, it’s pretty clear that you’re going to get the latter. Ryan O’Donnell (Ray Davies), Mark Newnham (Dave Davies), Garmon Rhys (Pete Quaife) and Andrew Gallo (Mick Avory) do the songs real justice with powerful harmonies from O’Donnell and Newnham, and great bass and drum lines.
The juke-box musical concept, though, is a tricky thing to get right, and although there’s an interesting biographical story here, as these “raw and uncivilised” teenagers prepare to take on the music world, the first half, in particular, is pretty flat. There’s the usual music industry to-ing and fro-ing as the band naively hire two unlikely Managers – Grenville Collins (Tomm Coles) and Robert Wace (Joseph Richardson), some reminders that they’re just “ordinary boys with bad teeth” (and therefore unlikely stars) and the setting up of some relationships that you just know are going to fall apart later. Things pick up a bit when a costume fitting for some Beatle-alike suits turns into a camp rendition of Dedicated Follower of Fashion and we start to get the measure of how things are going to go. Dave goes a bit wild (women, drugs, swinging from chandeliers), Ray meets future-wife Rasa (Lisa Wright) and everyone’s unhappy with Ray’s level of number one hit output.
Surrounded by useless management and promoters, the Kinks head off on a US tour. In terms of the story, this is where the show is strongest, charting rows with the unions (which led to a US tour ban), homesickness and exhaustion. Davies’s autobiographical songs give the narrative a real depth. Sitting In My Hotel and I Go To Sleep form a late night phone call between Ray and Rasa. Touring is like “working a factory without the job security” admits Ray. You can tell that Davies has pretty profound memories of this unhappy part of his life and they’re nicely reflected here through O’Donnell’s fragile and sensitive performance.
Thankfully, it’s time to return to good old London, and, feeling inspired, Ray writes some total blinders that set things back on track. With the help of the larger than life Allen Klein (Robert Took), who sorts out a better deal and a return to the US, the band are back on top for a big medley finale.
Sunny Afternoon is a West End show without the glitz. There’s a hint of wow-factor in the set, made out of hundreds of speakers, there are great dance routines, but this tale of working-class boys made good keeps slipping back, between songs, into being a mediocre play. What saves it is the music and the musical performances. During the recreation of the Top of The Pops performance of You Really Got Me we’re transported to 1964. The recording of Sunny Afternoon is enough to bring a tear to your eye, and a final medley has the audience up on its feet. If the energy in these scenes flowed throughout, this would be a great night in the theatre. As it is, it’s a really great tribute act punctuated with rather a dry narrative and too many one-dimensional performances.
Runs until 27 August 2016 | Image: Kevin Cummins