With new British musicals dropping like flies in the West End lately, surely the last thing needed to replace one of them is yet another so-called juke box show, regurgitating old hits that the audience can hum as they enter the theatre. Well actually, if that show is this one, it is exactly what is needed. Sometimes you go to the theatre knowing beforehand that you are going to love what you see and here we have an example of that which never disappoints, not for a single second. The Kinks may have fallen a little way behind the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who in the Premier League of 1960s bands, but when it comes to stage adaptations of musicians’ lives and music, Sunny Afternoon is up there vying for the title alongside Jersey Boys. Yes, it really is that good! The secret lies in the songs’ lyrics, written, along with the music, by Ray Davies (played brilliantly here by John Dalgleish) who, we are told, thinks in songs; thus, his lyrics, often satirical and very amusing, form a commentary on life as he sees it and the songs fit naturally into the show’s narrative. The rags-to-riches story contains little that is new, but it is told with such freshness and verve that it feels new. Four working class lads from Muswell Hill jump onto the 60s pop bandwagon, make it big, get exploited by management, music publishers and record companies, have a disastrous tour in the US which results in them getting banned from the country, argue and fight with each other and eventually come to terms with their success. In another life, Ray could have been an office clerk, more the stay-at-home type, but he is haunted by the sudden death of his sister Rene when he was 13, on the same day that she gave him his first guitar and he is determined to make it as a musician for her sake. His younger brother Dave (another great performance by George Maguire), just 16 when it all starts, is the polar opposite – a wild partygoer with a fondness for cross dressing (although not, apparently, the inspiration for Lola). Pete (Ned Derrington) and Mick (Adam Sopp) make up the band. A ramp stretching right into the centre of the stalls sends out a clear message that these guys belong to the people and extends an already large stage to give plenty of room for Adam Cooper’s inventive choreography, which often features a troop of girls who might be the Davies sisters, screaming groupies or Pan’s People at various times. The book, written by Joe Penhall from Ray Davies’ own original story is concise and witty and Edward Hall directs with aplomb. Most of the familiar hits, many of which sound better now than when first released, are included and performed superbly, but, in case any were missed, a five minute medley of ones that might not have fitted into the narrative comes after the cast have taken their bows and gets the entire audience (many in the same age group as the Kinks) onto its feet, jigging around and clapping. As well as telling the story of a rock band, the book and the songs’ lyrics also describe a unique decade of massive change and they paint vivid pictures of a city (London) in which dedicated followers of fashion strolled on sunny afternoons, heading for Waterloo at sunset. For those of us who can remember such things and probably also for those who can’t, this is a joyous show.
Performance date: 7 May 2014