Sunny Afternoon takes you right back to the swinging 60s (even if it was before you were born) and the rise of The Kinks to become rock ‘n’ roll superstars. Commissioned by Sonia Friedman Productions and first premièred at Hampstead Theatre in May this year (front man Ray Davies’ own North London stomping ground) the positive reviews which preceded its inevitable transfer to the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre only increased the pressure for the cast come the celebrity-attended press night last week.
Playwright Joe Penhall takes us on the journey of the two working class brothers and band-mates; front man Ray (John Dagleish) and his flamboyant younger sibling Dave (George Maguire), who created their own unique sound whilst yearning for a better life. As the lyrics of ‘Dead End Street’ go: ‘There’s a crack up in the ceiling, and the kitchen sink is leaking, out of work and got no money, a Sunday joint of bread and honey.’
Soon the Davies brothers and the other members of ‘The Ravens’ (doesn’t have quite the same ring does it?), bassist Peter Quaife (Ned Derrington) and drummer Mick Avory (Adam Sopp) have to tackle two greedy contract-waving managers, both eager for a slice of the action, including the slippery Robert Wace (Dominic Tighe) and Grenville Collins (Tam Williams) – who at least both ensured the band changed its name. The audience are taken on a journey of the band’s early successes and the distinctive music now well loved by millions around the globe.
The musical also delves into the exhaustion, homesickness and temptations which were the result of overnight fame and screaming fans. Lillie Flynn is brilliant as the steely Rasa, the girl who skipped convent school in order to see The Kinks play at Sheffield and ended up stealing Ray’s heart. Naturally, the managers were keen to point out how disappointed the fans would be when Ray went on to marry the pregnant Rasa – but it didn’t seem to hinder the popularity of The Kinks, and in between childbirth, she also provided the backing vocals to some of their most famous songs including ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and ‘Death of a Clown’.
The musical numbers are cleverly interspersed with a lot of humour, such as when the four are initially styled in suits reminiscent of The Beatles, but George Maguire as ‘Dave the Rave’ undoubtedly steals the show as the long-haired hippy guitarist, who does a fine turn of dressing up and sporting a feather boa for ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’. It’s a production that hasn’t been conjured up out of the ether like so many other musicals, with poor quality songs you simply would never buy the album of – these are hits that are always enjoyable to listen to and the story of The Kinks’ early career is equally fascinating. What’s more, there’s a musically talented cast to bring them to life.
Director Edward Hall has created an atmosphere akin to a pop concert, and, for anyone who didn’t live through the Sixties first time around, this will make you wish you had. There’s even an appearance by Pan’s People and I defy anyone, regardless of age, to refrain from tapping along to the infectious chords of their first major hit ‘You Really Got Me’ from 1964 or from getting to your feet for the ‘Waterloo Sunset’ encore. Sunny Afternoon is a long overdue celebration of The Kinks, and in particular Ray Davies, whose lyrics capture the sheer optimism and fun of the era like no other songwriter.
Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre, booking until May 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.