Sunny Afternoon is a trip down dead end street, the story of The Kinks told through the band’s songs penned by frontman Ray Davies and playwright Joe Penhall. As one of Britain’s greatest songwriters, Davis’s lyrical narratives lend themselves nicely to a stage musical about the life of the band both on and off the stage and his (and brother Dave’s) melodies are natural crowd pleasers.
The Kinks were misfits in the 1960s, scruffy Cockneys with none of The Beatles’ pretty boy good looks or the Rolling Stones’ stylish swagger. From the beginning there was much internal squabbling, with Ray’s brother lead guitarist Dave (whose band The Kinks originally was) a constant spiky presence. The prickly, cross-dressing Dave Davies is played with gusto by George Maguire has recently, and deservedly, been nominated for a What’sOnStage award for Best Supporting Actor in a musical. He’s a Scrappy Do-like character, always gagging for fight or a party – brawling with drummer Mick Avory (Adam Sopp) and swinging from the chandeliers in sequins the next.
Sunny Afternoon follows the band from their inception in the Davis’s north London (pre-organic sourdough times) living room to an ill-fated American tour and their first Number 1. There’s class warfare, pitting the talented Muswell Hill hillbillies against Oxbridge types in double breasted suits, and many internal fall-outs (bassist Pete Quaife – Ned Derrington – eventually quits the band in frustration). And there are the songs, many gloriously melodic songs, from the hard guitar riff of ‘You Really Got Me’ to the sublime ‘Waterloo Sunset’.
But the production stays the right side of positive, in fact you could argue it rather white washes some of the darker bits (Ray’s depression, his divorce from his childhood sweetheart who we meet in this production, played by Lillie Flynn). The story ends triumphantly with England winning the 1966 World Cup, resulting in a finale that is a real highlight, an infectious proper on-yer-feet celebration that encapsulates the swinging and a nation riding on the high of a World Cup win (or our rose-tinted ideal of what 1966 was like).
Sunny Afternoon premiered at the Hampstead Theatre earlier this year, where it was a sell-out smash. West End transfers can be dodgy things; a play that worked in an intimate space outside a W1 postcode can feel swamped in a bigger venue. And Sunny Afternoon feels a little lost at the Harold Pinter despite the great songs, triumphant set pieces and the response from a thrilled audience.
But it would be impossible not to have fun at Sunny Afternoon; any production soundtracked by The Kinks is going to be toe-tappingly fun and as good as the performances are, it’s the songs for me that were the real stars.
by Suzanne Elliott
Harold Pinter theatre, London. Booking to May 2015. Tickets: 0844 871 7622; sunnyafternoonthemusical.com