The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre Spring 2014; Pinter Theatre 2014-2016
Sunny Afternoon tells the story of the rise and fall and rise of a real 1960s rock band, as recalled by those who were there, with the group's songs punctuating and commenting on the narrative.
It is, in short, a British counterpart to Jersey Boys, with The Kinks in place of The Four Seasons.
The songs are arguably better and certainly more ambitious, the narrative significantly weaker. It undoubtedly helps to be a 50-year Kinks fan, but it's not necessary.
The book by Joe Penhall, following Ray Davies' memories, begins with four guys – Ray, his brother Dave and two friends – forming a band, having a couple of hits, being ripped off by managers and agents, becoming very big, going a little wild, barely surviving a disastrous American tour, being torn apart by personality clashes and lawsuits, starting over – and do you see the problem?
Ray Davies may be remembering accurately, but if so, the Kinks lived out an archetypal pattern common to just about every musician of the 1950s and 1960s. True or not, it plays like an unimaginative B-movie and Joe Penhall is unable to make it seem individualised or in any way more than a string of cliches.
There are actually some hints that Penhall is doing this deliberately. Subsidiary characters are all exaggerated types, from the brothers' salt-of-the-earth father through the stage-Jewish record company guy to the gangsters and rednecks in America, and even the major figures are given just a single note to play.
Ray is a sweet and earnest guy who finds it easier to express himself in song than in conversation, while Dave is the essence of randy alcoholic rock star (individualised only by occasional transvestism). The dialogue is sometimes so thick with cliche that you have to admire the actors for getting through it with straight faces.
Why would Penhall deliberately write badly? Perhaps to underline the archetypal nature of the Kinks' adventure. Or maybe he just wrote badly. In either case, and in contrast to the interestingly multi-layered narrative of Jersey Boys, there isn't much to Sunny Afternoon's story-telling to hold you.
Fortunately there is always another Kinks song coming along every few minutes, and they are good. Some are presented as performances or recording sessions while others, sometimes anachronistically, express Ray's emotions of a moment or comment on the action. Certainly it is the music that carries the show.
Ray Davies could write hard-driving rock (You Really Got Me, Lola) with the best of them, but he could also be wickedly ironic (A Well-Respected Man, Dedicated Follower of Fashion) and it is nice to be reminded of his more thoughtful and elegiac side, as represented by Waterloo Sunset, the title song or Sitting In My Hotel.
John Dagleish convinces us that Ray is an all-around Nice Guy but is less successful in making us believe that all these songs came out of him. George Maguire can't do much with Dave, and everyone else admirably doubles and triples roles playing Everyone Else.
Ed Hall's direction doesn't have quite the lightness of touch that would be needed to bring life to the plodding story, and Adam Cooper's choreography is limited largely to TV backing-dancers routines.
Come for the songs, sit patiently and charitably through the rest.
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Review - Sunny Afternoon - Hampstead Theatre 2014