There was an air of scepticism when it was first announced that Kinks frontman Ray Davies had written a stage musical. Another ho hum juke box musical was it? How wrong.
Sunny Afternoon is a warts-and-all exposé of how one of Britain’s most influential 1960s rock bands made it to the top despite major setbacks, infighting and exploitation.
Now the multi award-winning musical, which has been delighting fans in London for nearly three years, has sent out a touring production and it’s winning a whole new set of fans in the regions.
This week it has pitched up at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre and fired up not only a renewed passion for the Swinging ’60s but also the band’s back catalogue.
The show’s programme lists nearly 80 top tunes and albums though most of their major successes came in their first six years before the rot set in.
More than just being astounded at the sheer number of hits chalked up by this chart-topping group, audiences get a behind-the-scenes look at just how difficult the road to success was – and probably still is – for bands.
It’s not just the managers, music publishers, recording studios, and the like, taking their cuts that can crucify a group, but the clashing personalities that make up the band.
The public knows a bit about the top groups of the time, like The Who, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, but we don’t know the whole story.
Ray Davies has, understandably, concentrated Sunny Afternoon on his volatile relationship with his young brother, Dave, which, to this day, is famously shaky. The other two band members, drummer Mick Avory and bass guitarist Peter Quaife, are underwritten as to almost be rendered backing musicians.
Andrew Gallo, as Avory, has a belting drum solo which, deservedly, gets wildly applauded, while Garmon Rhys, as Quaife, doesn’t have much involvement until the show’s final scene.
The Kinks started out in the early 1960s as a backing band for a couple of toffs who did the circuit of blue stocking weddings and corporate dinners. Sunny Afternoon opens when schoolboy Dave breaks out during a sedate dance number to give the well-heeled folks at a ball a taste of rock and pop.
Knowing a good thing when they hear it the Tory toffs take a back seat to become the band’s managers.
Before you know it the four lads from Muswell Hill, famously described as “Raw, scruffy working class oiks,” are top of the pop charts with songs like You Really Got Me, Set Me Free, Dedicated Follower of Fashion, Waterloo Sunset, Lola, and the eponymous Sunny Afternoon.
Ryan O’Donnell, who I last saw playing a young Ian Anderson on a Jethro Tull tour, here turns in a compelling, multi-layered performance as singer, song-writer Ray Davies.
Deeply affected by the death of a sister on his 13th birthday, Ray had to conquer a stammer to play lead vocalist in the band. O’Donnell captures Ray’s other-worldliness and depth that prompts Dave’s explanation to others that his brother often thought in songs, created just from being somewhere or with someone.
Always unsure and a little nervous we see Ray have a panic attack, suffer homesickness as the band attempt to crack America (becoming the only socialist band in the business to be brought down by the unions), and take to his bed with depression.
Dave, just 17, had to get his dad’s permission to leave school and play professionally. Before the ink was dry the teen was living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of drink, drugs, women – and dressing in frocks.
Mark Newnham, as Dave, swings from a chandelier, quaffs bubbly, and frequently clashes with both his more thoughtful, sensitive brother, and Avory. It’s an eye catching turn, backed by superb musicianship on lead guitar.
The pair begin playing around with the opening riff of a song Ray’s written – You Really got Me.
Something’s not right – so they amp up the volume and then famously wreck the equipment with a knife to get the rough edged sound they’re after. Seconds later Dave’s notes resonate through the auditorium and up through the seats.
The Waterside’s vast stage is perfect for Sunny Afternoon with Miriam Buether’s stunning set design shown in all its glory and the 15-strong cast, plus support musicians, allowed the space to give the musical’s big numbers room to breath.
There’s a lovely, and moving, a cappella version of Days and a clever rendition of Ray’s sharply-observed take on the band’s financial predicament, The Moneygoround.
After six years of chart-topping success Dave is burned out and the band members almost broke. Whoever got rich by being associated with a successful pop group, it wasn’t the guys themselves.
The story flags a bit towards the end but redeems itself with a rousing encore dressed up as a gig. It could have done with a few more numbers but the audience seemed pleased.
Sunny Afternoon continues at Aylesbury Waterside until Saturday before continuing its UK Tour until 2017.
Sunny Afternoon tells the story of how a group of raw, scruffy, working class oiks from Muswell Hill, became one of Britain’s most influential pop groups.