I’m never quite sure about jukebox musicals: really, I’d rather see an original show with brand new music. And when the jukebox musical in question is based around music from a band I know next to nothing about, that’s another reason not to bother. However, after hearing about Sunny Afternoon‘s Olivier win and how well received it’s been by fellow bloggers, I began to change my mind and was very grateful to be able to see it courtesy of OfficialTheatre.
The musical, which premiered at Hampstead Theatre, has music and lyrics by Ray Davies, founder member and songwriter of the Kinks, and charts the band’s rise to stardom during the 1960s. With very little knowledge of the band’s music, I wasn’t sure what to expect but it really appealed to me: I loved the songs I already knew, like You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night, as well as those I didn’t, such as Waterloo Sunset, Lola and the title track itself. The cast played their own instruments alongside a talented on-stage band, giving a raw, energetic feel to the show.
The development of the band is seen through Ray’s eyes, and we learn more about his life than that of any of the other band members: the sister who gave him his first guitar, only to die shortly afterwards; his marriage; and his state of mind as expressed in the lyrics of the songs he writes. John Dagleish won an Olivier for his portrayal and I’m not surprised: he had charm and stage presence, a strong voice and a likeable vulnerability. During the interval, someone behind me said, “he’s the one from Lark Rise to Candleford, isn’t he”, and it gave me a shock: of course it was him, but I hadn’t recognised him at all, his character was so different. George Maguire also won an Olivier for his supporting role as brother Dave, and his was my favourite character of all: his wildness summed up in a scene in which he swings from a chandelier wearing a pink dress. The duet between the two brothers in Act II was a highlight for me: poignant and heartfelt, it perfectly captured their chemistry. Drummer Mick Avory (Adam Sopp) and bassist Pete Quaife (Ned Derrington) get less stage time, which is a shame: I would have liked to find out more about them. Still, their supporting performances add considerably to the show, as do those of Lillie Flynn as Ray’s wife Rasa, who demonstrates a beautiful singing voice, and a talented ensemble cast.
Directed by Edward Hall and with a book by Joe Penhall, the piece has warmth and shows how the band’s songs were rooted in their own experiences. I was intrigued to learn how they fell foul of the unions during a tour of the US, and I thought the piece did well in exploring the contradictions between the band’s socialist views, their upper-class managers and their desire – particularly Ray’s – to retain control of and the income from the music. The band members fight and make up as befits a rock band; I was expecting some kind of tragedy to occur but this didn’t happen – this is very much a feel-good show. I thought the book was a little uneven, with a second half that dragged slightly, but for me this was a minor issue.
As previously mentioned, I don’t have much knowledge of the Kinks so I can’t comment on how accurate the portrayals of people and events in Sunny Afternoon are, nor how the versions of the songs presented here compare with the originals. Taken on its own merits, however, this is a great show with great music – even if you’ve never heard it before – and a strong cast. One of the better jukebox musicals to hit the West End in recent years, it’s an electric night out.