Monday, 21 April 2014

'Sunny Afternoon' at the Hampstead Theatre

There's a new musical on the block and this time it's about The Kinks with the original story, music and lyrics by Ray Davies. At one level it's another jukebox musical but this seems to work if only because it's not trying to shoe-horn the songs in to fit the story since Ray has written songs for every mood and every eventuality.

'Sunny Afternoon', named after the song that was at No 1 in the chart in 1966 when England won the World Cup, is the tale of the Kinks in the '60s as recalled by Ray. It says in the programme that it reflects Ray's memories rather than 'the truth' (whatever that might be) and that Dave remembers things slightly differently in some places. It's nice that Dave plays such a large part in the play from the schoolboy with a guitar to the rock star drunk and in a dress after nights of excess.

The majority of the play deals with the early Kinks carer between 1963 and 1966 - their rise and getting banned in America - before re-surfacing with new management in the form of Alan Klein and ends with 'Lola' in 1970. I have no idea how many Kinks songs are featured in the play since, in some scenes, we get a verse and chorus rather than the whole song or two or more songs mashed together so a lot of music is included, maybe up to 25 songs? Some songs are played in full, of course, with the actors behaving like a band as they blast out some of those klassic Kinks songs.

The staging is interesting, with a catwalk out into the seats to make the setting more three dimensional and more stage space (and I was sitting at the end of the catwalk, afraid I'd trip up the actors as they ran around). The stage had a background of a huge bank of amplifiers that set the scene instantly and these were only covered in the first part of the second half with a giant American flag while the Kinks were being busy being banned from America.

The background of amps made for a really powerful scene when Ray played the riff to 'You Really Got Me' on the piano and Dave played it on his guitar and the brothers agreeing it wasn't right. So they plugged the speaker into an amp and again shook their heads. Still not right. So Ray stuck a screwdriver into the speaker to make a dirtier sound and Dave went TWWAAAAANNGGG and it worked! Then Dave starts bouncing on his bed and riffing away as the rest of the family runs in and so do their managers. The play is full of little moments of humour like this.

Which is just as well because that's when business enters the picture, everyone wanting a piece of the action and the naive youngsters just going along for the ride. And this is where it differs from being a jukebox musical into being a proper musical since Ray and Dave's dad and family sing 'Dead End Street' while they deliberate over signing a contract on Dave's behalf since he's still a minor. The songs don't come in chronological order, they appear when they're needed to take the story forward and that's a good thing.

We see the lads gradually rise and appear on Top of the Pops, Ray getting married against almost everyone's wishes (the publicist points out that John Lennon has been married for years) and the stresses that brings.

The second half kicks off when they're on tour and hassled by musicians union people wanting their cut. The stress mounts on Ray and, to clearly demonstrate this isn't your standard jukebox musical, we have a scene with Ray sitting in his hotel room on the phone to his wife singing 'Sitting In My Hotel' to which his wife replies with a quiet version of 'I Go To Sleep'. That was quite touching.

The stresses of the American tour and law suits against rip-off managers take their toll as Ray hides away at home with exhaustion and re-surfaces to celebrate the World Cup with 'Sunny Afternoon' at No 1 in the chart. The song is played in full with the actors being the band and, at the end, the World Cup is lowered and showered with paper fluttering from the ceiling. That got a rousing applause.

We then see Ray and Dave arguing about whether to sign with Alan Klein as their manager with Ray arguing that they'll just be signing their lives away again. Dave argues it's the only thing to keep the band together and that's all he's got. In a touching moment Ray signs the contract against his better judgement. But that's what brothers do.

The other big hits played in full are 'Waterloo Sunset' and 'Lola' as time flies past in the late 60s and the band suddenly discover flared trousers in 1970! We then get a final song to close the show, a mash-up between 'Lola' and 'You Really Got Me' that got everyone up on their feet and singing along. Yes, even me.

It took a while to get going but the show won me over. Whether it's the lads pretending to be the Kinks or the girls changing for almost every song to be groovy go-go dancers or taking one of the roles. I think I saw the actor playing Ray's dad take four different parts - there are a lot of characters in the show and the actors take multiple roles. I liked seeing Ray's wife who sings backing vocals on the records finally get her wish to appear on stage with the band singing and strumming away - no idea whether this really happened but it worked a treat in the setting of the play.

John Dagleish played Ray and George Maguire was Dave (with a classic Dave haircut too) and I liked Lillie Flynn as Ray's wife, Rasa. I also liked Tam Williams and Dominic Tighe as the original upper class managers Grenville Collins and Robert Wace - the only problem was that Dominic looks just like Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet, particularly in his sharp suit so I kept confusing the decades when he was on stage!

It's great fun and it's lovely to hear those old songs played live again, even the three I'd never heard before. The majority of the audience were of the age to be original fans (and good on them) but it was also nice to see some younger people in the audience, presumably there out of curiosity or friends of the cast. It would be nice to see this transfer into the West End for a run and see if it can find an audience. Most people will probably recognise most of the songs and there's certainly more of a story behind the show than something like 'Jersey Boys' that's been on in the West End for years now. The Kinks were London lads and Ray wrote about the changing world around him, around all  of us, so, in a sense, it's as much our story as his.

I claim part of the story. 'Lola' was my very first 7" vinyl single and at the tender age of 10 years old I had no idea what it was about but liked it. I recall asking my Mam what a 'dark brown voice' meant. My second or third 12" LP was 'Golden Hour of the Kinks', a compilation of all those great 1960s songs in 1971. The show cries out for a CD of the Kinks songs featured in the show.

The show is only on for another six weeks so book tickets now if you want to see it. It's a good night out and will remind you of those excellent songs that still resonate today. 

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