Ray Davies is a wonderful song writer. It’s not until you sit down to watch a three-hour show woven around his lyrics that you realise just how good he is. ‘Sunny Afternoon’ offers no in-depth explanation as to how he wrote his songs. According to his kid brother Dave “they just come to him when he’s not thinking of much else”. But because they came straight from his own experiences of a young man maturing in London, an autobiographical musical is an obvious progression. And jolly good it is, too.
Joe Penhall wrote the script but Davies is credited with the original story and because ‘he was there’ it is a hugely authentic account of how his band emerged, developed and dwindled; warts and all. The band bickers. There are clear cut rifts between Ray and his brother Dave. Ray clearly remembers the night Dave swung from a hotel chandelier in a pink nighty. (Who wouldn’t?). They were tumultuous years to live through … but the songs were worth it.
Musically, it’s surprisingly innovative. The four lads start off as a middle of the road backing band to a dress-suited crooner. So, we get cosy Tin Pan Alley numbers about the music business in Denmark Street…until Dave hits a raunchy riff and the revolution arrives. Put on those green velvet suits which the chicks think are so kinky (so that’s where they got the name), turn up the amp to 11 and let’s rock. Though, unexpectedly, the band don’t sing all the songs themselves. There’s still an air of 1950s Musical about proceedings as their dad gets to sing ‘Dead End Street’ to trombone accompaniment and ‘Thank You For The Days’ is presented in almost monastic plainsong. These are, however, incongruous moments in an otherwise delicious diet of authentic reproductions of the big hits.
The cast have fun putting the songs together on stage. A walking bass, a little percussion fill and a twiddly bit on lead guitar turn into an excellent rendition of ‘Waterloo Sunset’; whilst the boys stick knitting needles into an amp to get just the right raunchy sound for the opening notes of ‘You Really Got Me’. Their management reckons it’s too raw and unsophisticated and no DJ will play it. But it gets to No 1.
Particularly fascinating is the sequence in the show when The Kinks try to make it in The States. They hit hostile union problems and are subjected to the remnants of McCarthy-ism. “Is your new born baby a Communist?” “No, he’s a Muswell Hill socialist, actually”.
Music-bizz jokes pepper the show. We see Ray fall for Rasa, a teeny bopper convent girl of Lithuanian descent, with whom he, not un-naturally, spends a lot of time – in the studio and out – only to be subjected to the retorts, “John Lennon wouldn’t spend all day in bed with his wife!” and “Paul McCartney would never have his wife in his band.”
The depths of the story are tantalisingly glossed over. Genuine emotions are reduced to snatches of dialogue about a crisis in confidence, not forgetting your roots, and the guitar Ray’s sister gave him on the day she died. These are themes crying out to be explored, but we’re all here for a good time and the music drives us on. It’s excellent, by the way; even the gratuitous drum solo!
In a superb cast, Ryan O’Donnell is the epitome of Ray Davis – vocally and visually – and Mark Newham takes his kid brother’s reputation on a short trip to the cleaners with great gusto and a gurning grin.
It’s three hours of high entertainment and “It Really Got Me”.
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