'Sunny Afternoon' or 'The Sixties Rock'

‘Sunny Afternoon’, Joe Penhall and Ray Davies
Hampstead Theatre, 5th May 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo 

I’m not a huge fan of 60s Brit rock band The Kinks. Hell, I didn’t even know they were behind the glorious summer anthem Sunny Afternoon. But by the end of this new musical, penned by Kinks fan and proper playwright Joe Penhall, I was bopping with the best of them. If only they made music like this today!

Miriam Buether’s set is as loud and rowdy as the Kinks’ music. The walls are plastered with speakers and the stage feels busy, colourful and just a little manic. A platform juts into the stalls and spectators sit at tables scattered around the stage. Edward Hall has done an excellent job of creating a lively atmosphere, more akin to a live rock concert than a night at the theatre.

At heart, this is really just a Juke Box musical. All the greatest hits are in here, including Dedicated Follower of Fashion and Waterloo Sunset. It could’ve all felt very contrived and cheap. What elevates this musical (a first for Hampstead Theatre) is the relevance of the Kinks’ music, written by lead singer Ray Davies. Each song cleverly references a pivotal moment in the band’s tumultuous journey. The music doesn’t just complement the band’s story – it is their story.

The burgeoning vanity of 60s British blokes, including Ray’s fellow band members, is cheekily mocked in Dedicated Followers of Fashion. The exhilaration of Ray’s first love blasts out of You Really Got Me and Davies’ observations about the working class lads he’s grown up with rumble through Working Class Man.

There’s an easy grace to Edward Hall’s production that reminds one of Ray Davies’ casual singing style. All this would be nothing, of course, without some blinding central performances. John Dagleish holds the show together (without appearing to lift a finger) as lead singer Ray Davies. His eyes droop and he leans back when he sings, as if he’s already halfway to bed. He oozes that relaxed charisma that is the calling card of the best singers from the sixties.  

George Maguire has a blast as Ray’s brother and Kinks guitarist ‘Dave the Rave’. He swigs alcohol, sweeps about in dresses and swings from chandeliers. Adam Sopp, as Mike, bashes the drums with a feral intensity and Ned Derrington floats about the edges as bassist Pete, a sensitive chap who can’t quite find his footing in this bonkers new world.

The second half gets a little scrappy, as the band battles with their agents and the American union. It risks getting just a little bit dull and detail-orientated. But the show is revived with a final live performance, which sees the audience on their feet and this sceptic swooning in the aisles.