Sunny Afternoon has to the noisiest, wildest, most fun musical in London’s West End at the moment. The story of the early days of the Kinks — in particular the relationship between the Davies brothers — it’s obviously a lot tamer than the real story of these British icons but, as a feel-good jukebox musical, it really lives up to its name.
That said, when rock songs get the musical treatment, they’re often sanitized versions but here, probably due to the fact that Ray Davies himself has been involved in the production (he’s even produced the forthcoming cast album), they’re loud, brash, and full of rock ‘n’ roll joy. In what other musical could you see an amp being destroyed to create a huge distorted, feedback-filled guitar riff? But that’s exactly what happens when Dave Davies creates the legendary sound of their first big hit, “You Really Got Me.” It helps that all the cast members actually play their own instruments and even are at the back of the stage playing during scenes they aren’t involved in. It gives that rare feeling that you’re actually seeing a live band in a musical, and at times feels more like a theatrical rock concert than a cutesy production (although, naturally, there is a little of that as well).
The story charts the rises and falls of the band, from their humble working class beginnings in Muswell Hill, London, to their triumphant return to the US playing Madison Square Garden. The focus is mainly on Ray and Dave (played by the first-rate John Dagleish and George Maguire), beginning with the Kinks’ first management deal and taking us through the signing of their first record contract to when they finally made the top of the charts with “You Really Got Me,” their third single. In real life, the brothers’ relationship was famously tumultuous, but here it’s presented in a milder, more affectionate way with brotherly love always winning the day. Rather, the main struggles are the band’s troubles with the US unions while on their first American tour — which led to them being banned for three years — and their fight with upper-class management to get their deserved share of royalties (the song “The Moneygoround” is used particularly effectively here).
The songs themselves are beautifully used, falling naturally into the story, which makes sense since many are autobiographical in the first place. There’s a wonderful scene in which the Davies family, while considering agreeing to sign the brothers’ first contract, sing about the hardships of being a working class family in ’60s London using the band’s 1966 hit “Dead End Street,” with the numerous members of the Davies family marching around the stage, utilizing the song like a rallying cry. England’s football World Cup victory in 1966 is also used in conjunction with the show’s title track for one of the most triumphant, celebratory scenes.
John Dagleish doesn’t resemble Ray much, but he certainly captures his determination and his brooding charisma. But it’s really George Maguire, who actually does look like the young Dave, who frequently steals the show, whether it’s swinging on a chandelier in a pink nightgown or enthusiastically dancing around the stage with his guitar, he’s always suitably madcap and entertaining. Sensitive bassist Pete Quaife (Ned Derrington) and drummer Mick Avory (Adam Sopp) also get a fair amount of attention, although it’s mostly in connection with their relationships with the Davies brothers, with Mick and Dave’s constant bickering proving particularly amusing, and at one point quite shocking.
Sunny Afternoon nicely evokes the feeling of the Swingin’ Sixties — the costumes are top notch — but it also showcases the timelessness of the Kinks’ music, from “Lola” to “This Time Tomorrow” to “Waterloo Sunset” and so many more. By the end, the audience is on its feet because of the music, but also because this is a show so full of heart and brimming with energy. The Kinks often don’t get their due as one of the best bands that came out of Britain in the ’60s, certainly up there with the Who and the Rolling Stones (who are both jokingly mentioned), but this fantastic, colorful, and hugely entertaining show certainly helps to readdress that.
SEE IT! Sunny Afternoon is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until May 23.
Photos via sunnyafternoonthemusical.com.