If you’re a Kinks fan, this isn’t the review of Sunny Afternoon you should be reading. This review is for someone who knows next to nothing about the Kinks but likes musical theater. Should you, oh fellow cultural outsider, see this show? Is it a good musical – or really just a jukebox musical, a way for fans to relive the experience outside of the concert hall?
But how could it be that I didn’t know much of the music of the Kinks? First, I’m too young; second, I’m not British. I was aware of the song “Lola” and “Come Dancing,” but those were the only two songs by the Kinks I could have dredged up out of my memory: “You Really Got Me” I certainly knew, but as a background song from the oldies radio station. I had never heard “Sunny Afternoon” or “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” (and not really “Waterloo Sunset,” at least not ’til I moved here): but I discovered (during the course of the show) that I had heard a few via The Pretenders – “Stop Your Sobbing” and “I Go to Sleep.” So there you have it, Kinks fans – I’m really sorry, but they just weren’t as fantastically big in the US as they were in the UK. My 60s listening has tended toward psychedelic music and girl bands, anyway.
So, then, why did I go? Well, it’s actually due to the talk on the show presented at the Hampstead Theater’s Page to Stage Festival, in which the show’s playwright Joe Penhall and its director Edward Hall talked about the complexities in building this story and bringing it to the stage. The writing process was fantastically exciting to me, as Ray Davies was directly involved in it – I mean, who gets to have the subject of your show walk in and say, “Yeah, that’s good, but did you know about this other story?” There was also some mind-expanding talk about recreating the sounds of this band during the sixties, ranging from getting the right kind of amplifiers to teaching all of the actors to not just to act the roles of musicians but to perform in the style of the musicians who they were emulating (i.e. one of them was always a tiny bit off-beat). It sounded like such a great artistic effort that I got really interested in seeing the output of all of this effort – and, I figured, at the end I’d know who the Kinks were in a way I certainly did not before the show started.
As a play, this show succeeded in creating some very rich, believable characters – primarily Ray Davies (John Dagliesh) and his brother Dave (George Maguire), whose richly nuanced performances created the semblance of real legends on the stage before us. And to throw us more into the milieu of this extremely creative era, we had a cast with not just the four people in the band singing and playing, but every single actor on stage contributing to the music (as near as I can tell), including some extremely surprising turns as the two posh boys in the first act turned out to play the trombone and the late middle aged actor who played one of the Kinks’ British lawyers turned out to be a rather fine percussionist. The energy on stage was really impressive – everybody seemed to be having a good time. I even caught the background pianist singing along to tunes where here clearly hadn’t been miked. The joy and excitement wasn’t just on stage, either, because by the end of the show all of the people sitting in my section (who all appeared to be in their late fifties to sixties) were up and dancing and having themselves a real knees-up.
This was what I enjoyed about the show – a chance to hear some really seminal British music performed, not just in its original context, but in its current context, with fandom intact. And I was intrigued by the ups and downs of the bands. However … as a story, it just didn’t get very deep. References were made to Ray Davies’ mental health issues – and they were portrayed a teeny bit on stage – but I never got a handle on just what was going on in his head or how it was affecting his daily life or his creativity. The conflict between the band members was laid out clearly enough, but I couldn’t see how it really ramped up or how it was resolved – just transitioning into another song didn’t explain it. And this seemed to be the solution for nearly every moment when the story could have taken us deeper – play a song. This, unfortunately, didn’t enlighten me, and I still have no idea what brought Ray together with his (first) wife, or how she ever found time to make it into the recording studio after the birth of their daughter. She looked groovy and sang great, but …
In conclusion, I think this is, to a great extent, a jukebox musical, because, while there’s lots of story going on, there just isn’t enough personal evolution for me to really rate it as a play. But there’s lots and lots of music and it’s really fun and it tries to really recreate the sound and feel of the era – and maybe that’s enough. It was certainly a good night out and I walked home humming a lot of the songs, and after any musical, that’s the criteria that would make me say I enjoyed myself.