Monday, 21 April 2014

Theatre review: Sunny Afternoon

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Not sure when the papers are being invited to this.

Hampstead Theatre have scored a number of West End transfers recently, and they're starting to look like that's their main aim as a producing house. It certainly seems that way as they enter the overcrowded field of the jukebox musical with Sunny Afternoon, a trip through the early years of The Kinks. Rather than fit Ray Davies' songs to an unrelated story, Joe Penhall's book recreates the band's origin and early triumphs and disasters (Davies also receives a story credit, which presumably translates into "remembering stuff.") Starting as the backing band to cheesy crooner Wace (Big Favourite Round These Parts Dominic Tighe,) Ray (John Dagleish,) his brother Pete (George Maguire) and their friend Pete (Ned Derrington1) on bass soon find that their working class earthiness is a better fit to the emerging music scene of the '60s. Adding drummer Mick (Adam Sopp) they become The Kinks, a name none of them can quite figure out the origins of.

After a shaky start the band become big in the UK, but a disastrous attempt to crack America combined with an over-large management team lands them in legal trouble that threatens to scupper their music career.

The jukebox musical is an overdone genre but the cliché holds true that you forget how many classic songs the band had until they're all lined up like this. The fact that Ray Davies' lyrics are both personal and politically satirical, clearly responding to specific events, makes them particularly suitable for use as part of the narrative. Penhall's script injects the songs into the action both as performed by the band, and as sung by the characters in more traditional musical theatre style ("Days" gets a nice A Capella reworking) and fortunately Ed Hall's production finds a balance between the styles. It also has a huge amount of energy, particularly in the first act - the second is dragged down a bit by the fact that The Kinks' story becomes one of contract renegotiations and disagreements with American unions, but is kept livened up by moments like Sopp's impressive drum solo, or Maguire's tendency to wear ballgowns and swing from chandeliers, his bare right arm coated in streaky orange makeup WHICH IS WHY ACTORS SHOULD NOT GET MASSIVE FUCKOFF TATTOOS.

For me the key to Sunny Afternoon's success is a sense of the ridiculous that's apparent from the opening moments, and which isn't afraid to poke fun at Davies and co's inherent contradictions, especially the fact that the archetypal working class band's most stalwart supporters behind the scenes were Wace and Collins (Tam Williams,) a clueless but well-meaning pair of poshos acting as their first managers.

Miriam Buether's set sends a catwalk out into the audience to bring a sense of a concert to certain scenes, and her costume designs reflect a fun 1960s vision that reflects how, despite the darker times we see the band go through and the political message of many of the songs, Sunny Afternoon is primarily designed as a celebration and fun night out. Cynical in its conception it might be, but it's hit on both a subject matter and back catalogue that really work when put together on a stage.

Sunny Afternoon by Ray Davies and Joe Penhall is booking until the 24th of May at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

1who's got a nice set of pins on him when he changes his trousers onstage, although his shirt stays disappointingly attached to him throughout

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