In July 1966 the England football team was about to pull off the impossible and London was fast becoming the hip, groovy and happening place to be.
High in the charts was The Kinks, with their second hit, Sunny Afternoon. This popular four-piece pop combo, fronted by Ray Davies and his younger brother Dave, hailed from North London, and were to become one of the most influential rock groups of all time.
Fast forward almost 50 years and you don’t have to be a Dedicated Follower of Fashion to realise that Sunny Afternoon is back and riding high.
In 2014 Ray’s searingly honest musical slipped onto the genteel stage of Hampstead Theatre, blasted out its silver-haired audience, and won a whole new set of fans, before transferring to the West End, becoming a major hit and winning four Oliviers.
England didn’t make the final at this year’s World Cup but Sunny Afternoon is set for continued success with a national tour opening in Manchester tomorrow.
The cast were putting the finishing touches to the show at rehearsal studios on The Isle of Dogs in East London when I caught up with them.
I watched key cast members Ryan O’Donnell, playing Ray Davies, Mark Newnham, as brother Dave, Garmon Rhys as bassist Pete Quaife and Andrew Gallo playing Kinks’ drummer Mick Avory, going through their paces, including a rousing rendition of Sunny Afternoon before sitting down with them for a chat.
Tousle-haired Ryan, a former member of the Jethro Tull entourage, has already appeared in the 1960s Who musical, Quadrophenia. He had to pass muster with The Kinks’ frontman Ray before bagging the part and has since been understudy to the lead in the West End production.
“I remember meeting Ray backstage once, after I’d got the part, and he said ‘Hi, nice to meet you. So, you’re doing this are you?’ We shook hands and that was it,” said Ryan.
“Ray is very hands on. He comes to watch it quite a lot and he’s very supportive. He comes to all the auditions and is involved in casting.
“When you go into the final round of auditions there is this quiet man sitting at the back with a steely glare, passing judgement – which is pretty intimidating.
“I didn’t know much about The Kinks before I saw the show a couple of years ago, but obviously I knew the songs. But you don’t realise how many they wrote. It can be overwhelming for audiences. Just one great song after another. It’s a helluva show.”
Garmon, who has recently toured in stage productions playing Agatha Christie’s young detective, Tommy, in The Secret Adversary and Wilfred Owen in the WWI drama, Regeneration, here plays disillusioned guitarist Quaife, who suffers a crisis of confidence at the peak of the band’s success.
“My favourite song in the show is You Really Got Me because it’s the first time you get to see the band play together as a four-piece properly, when they’re on Top of the Pops and you get a real buzz when you hear those first chords. It’s amazing.”
“I like Set Me Free, which is a pretty sexy tune, with all the trippy vocal harmonies and guitar riffs,” said Ryan.
“I have a constant battle with our music director, in songs like Sunny Afternoon. He comes up to me and says: ‘You are singing it like Ray but could you sing it a bit nicer? A bit brighter? It is supposed to be a happy moment in the show!’
“I say that it’s a lazy afternoon but he says: ‘Yeah, but it’s not a lazy moment in the show!’”
Garmon says that Britain can’t get enough of the 1960s. “It was a pioneering era for culture and fashion, especially British music and apparel.
“It was where a lot of modern fashions were started. Our wardrobe department have had it easy because the clothes and shoes, like the Chelsea Boots, are still in fashion.
“And our audiences are not all in their 60s. We have kids of all ages because everyone loves 1960’s music.
“The reason Sunny Afternoon has been so successful is that audiences don’t just come to hear amazing songs that they remember but there are a lot of familiar themes – money, homesickness, the class struggle.”
“A lot of people come up to me,” said Ryan, “who were around at that time and didn’t know the full story. This has a strong narrative, is a fascinating play, as well as a great musical.”
Andrew Gallo, who toured recently with Saturday Night Fever, has an impressive drum solo in Sunny Afternoon which earns the admiration of everyone.
“I was originally up for Pete, Mick and their manager. I had five drum songs to learn plus their scenes and, just in case, another song. I hadn’t touched the drums for a year so I booked myself into a studio and drummed for about four hours solid until I gave myself blisters!”
He first heard The Kinks at the age of 12 after discovering a cache of old cassette tapes while sitting with mates in a neighbour’s attic. “We just played them on a loop.”
Mike, who plays wild Dave, swilling fizz, swinging from a chandelier, bedding the birds and wearing a frock or two, used to play The Kinks songs when he was in a band in Brighton.
“I knew that Ray and Dave had a tempestuous relationship and their songs are so iconic. It was so magical the way Ray wrote about stuff. He came up with some incredible lyrics. I haven’t stopped listening to The Kinks since I got the job.
“Dave is a real gift to play. He’s so flamboyant and has such a verve for life. And the script is fantastic. You could take the songs out and still have an incredible play.
“I auditioned in front of Ray, which was interesting. I was auditioning for Pete and Dave. I did my Pete stuff first and had my fringe over one way and then, when I did my Dave audition, I said: “Do you mind if I manipulate my fringe?’ which made Ray laugh.
“I moved it into a centre parting and he said: ‘Oh yeah, you’re playing a different character’. ‘Yeah, I’m playing your little brother!’ and again I made him laugh.”
2016/7 Tour dates
August 19-27, Manchester Opera House August 30-September 3, Milton Keynes Theatre September 6-10, New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham September 13-17, Edinburgh Playhouse September 20-24, Cliffs Pavilion, Southend September 27-October 1, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre October 4-8, Sunderland Empire October 11-15, King’s Theatre, Glasgow October 18-22, Princess Theatre, Torquay October 25-29, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield November 1-5, New Victoria Theatre, Woking November 8-12, His Majesty’s Theare, Aberdeen November 15-19, Orchard Theatre, Dartford November 29-December 3, Regent Theatre, Stoke December 6-10, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton December 13-31, Theatre Royal, Brighton
January 10-14, Royal & Derngate, Northampton January 17-21, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff January 24-28, Theatre Royal, Nottingham January 31-February 4, New Theatre, Oxford February 7-11, Liverpool Empire February 14-18, Cymru Llandudno February 21-25, Grand Opera House, York February 28-March 4, Alhambra Theatre, Bradford March 7-11, Bristol Hippodrome March 21-25, Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin April 4-8, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury April 11-15, Theatre Royal Norwich April 18-22, Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton May 2-6 Grand Opera House, Belfast.