Sunny Afternoon continues at the New Wimbledon Theatre, London until 1 April, then continues on tour until 13 May.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
If you admire the quirky genius of Ray Davies, you can’t help but love Sunny Afternoon, but even if the music of the Kinks – one of the most dysfunctional pop groups in history – doesn’t float your boat, it’s still a great story, dramatically woven around songs that have stood the test of time.
The North London rock group made a mint in the 1960s (but saw very little of it) shortly after The Beatles and Rolling Stones transformed the British pop scene.
The cynical ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Tired of Waiting For You’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, ‘Lola’ and the title song have a unique, often world-weary Englishness about them that separated the group from the positive, bullish Great Britain going on around them.
Much more than a jukebox musical, it impressed tremendously in a two-year stint in the West End, walking off with four Oliviers, but on second viewing and an entirely different cast, this touring version that has been doing the rounds since August is no poor relation.
‘Waterloo Sunset’, a homage to our gorgeous and now-frightened capital, still has the power to move grown men to tears. The lyrics describe a solitary narrator watching two lovers cross Waterloo Bridge and reflecting on the couple, the Thames and the railway.
While his wild-man younger brother Dave was as mad as a box of frogs, the thoughtful, reflective Ray appeared to have been the only near-normal one in a band that remains the only British group to have been drummed out of the USA after refusing to tow the Musicians’ Union line and pay its dues.
That scene is a richly comic moment and if you raved over Jersey Boys, you’re likely to appreciate this one maybe even more (book by Joe Penhall; music, lyrics and original story by Davies) because it is closer to home.
It matches in fizz and spirit the Small Faces musical All Or Nothing, a more recent take on another legendary London group. The two shows are linked because Mark Newnham, who plays the violent, foul-mouthed Dave here, was a memorable Steve Marriott in All Or Nothing at The Vaults.
Big brother Ray (Ryan O’Donnell, totally believable) has given Newnham the showier role – he didn’t have much choice given Dave’s penchant for wearing dresses! – while making himself the tortured one with bad teeth and a stutter, miserable with homesickness and missing wife Rasa and child like mad during an American tour filled with problems.
What made The Kinks so different was that they were proudly London at a time when the North was getting most of the rock’n’roll glory. Even American groups were trying to sing with a Liverpool accent and while the Stones were from the South, they sang American-style material. Davies’ style, less frantic and often sarcastic, required more careful listening.
Who, for example, among the chanting audience joining in the show’s finale ‘Lola’ realised it was all about an innocent abroad who falls for a transvestite’s charms in a Soho bar – “walked like a woman and talked like a man”?
It was Davies’ most daring song and, coming in 1970 six years after their first chart-topper ‘You Really Got Me’, more or less marked the end of their golden period.
Sadly, they never saw much of the fortune they made or else failed to hang on to it. It was the old story of a naive band from humble beginnings, in their case Muswell Hill, being turned over by incompetent or unscrupulous managers, and all sides of that coin are woven into a turbulent story that is never less than an absorbing sidebar to their music.
There are some marvellous set pieces and vibrant, miniskirted dance support. ‘Sunny Afternoon’ itself is given a high-octane production ‘marriage’ to England’s World Cup triumph in that summer of ’66, leading into a choke-out ‘Lola’ finale that gets everyone up on their feet and singing along.
Director Edward Hall nails the humour and pathos of a piece in which the pace never slackens and Adam Cooper’s inventive choreography provides many a joyously high-kicking moment.
The cast throws everything into it with O’Donnell capturing all the wit and sadness of Ray, especially in the moving scenes with stay-at-home wife Rasa (Lisa Wright).
Newnham is hilariously over the top as the outrageous, unhinged Dave, while Garmon Rhys’ plaintive, well-observed guitarist Pete Quaife and Andrew Gallo, as drummer Mick Avory, are the other two long-suffering members of the band.
Joseph Richardson and Tomm Coles have the time of their lives as toffish Tory early managers of a devoutly Socialist band, and Robert Took doubles up as Ray’s father and famously corrupt manager Allen Klein who negotiated vastly improved deals for the impecunious group while not forgetting to feather his own nest first.
At almost three hours, Sunny Afternoon is good ten minutes too long but if it’s a Sunny Evening you’re after, this is still the place to be.