Even if musicals aren’t your cup of tea (and there are plenty of us out there), you should book seats for Sunny Afternoon while you still can: word is quickly spreading that this West End transfer of the Hampstead Theatre’s wonderful Kinks musical is the hottest ticket in town. People are already travelling from far and wide to see it, including the people next to me who’d flown over from the United States.
Armies of fans will come, obviously, but if you love The Kinks and worry that this musical will be a travesty of their story and songs: don’t. Ray Davies’ songwriting genius fizzles and kicks throughout, and the beautiful music produced onstage sounds very much like The Kinks. Spot on, in fact.
If you’re new to the band, whose 50th anniversary it is in 2014, then this silver-plattered opportunity to experience them will leave you hooked. If you hate The Kinks - and I’ve never yet met anyone who does, unlike (say) The Beatles or Rolling Stones - then it is probably advisable to stay away.
Joe Penhall’s involvement was the first indication I had that this production would be better than your average run-of-the-mill, yawn-inducing West End musical or cheesy pop group biopic. Crucially, the star playwright’s book tells the story through the songs themselves, linking together Davies’ lyrics into a compelling drama charting the band’s rise to fame in the early ‘60s, subsequent success, and problems.
‘Problems’ is the key word here, and another reason why Sunny Afternoon is so gripping. As you’d expect from Penhall, this is no one-dimensional whitewash saying how brilliant The Kinks were and are. They are brilliant, of course, but Penhall’s script, Edward Hall’s invigorating direction, and of course Ray Davies’ sometimes heart-rending lyrics combine to show that their journey through the past five decades has been along a rocky road, to say the least.
The titles of the twenty-five or so songs sung live in the show indicate some of the highs and lows, happiness and sadness, and emotional complexity inherent in The Kinks’ life and work. There’s “Sunny Afternoon,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy,” but also “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” “Too Much On My Mind,” and “Stop Your Sobbing.” The final bashed-out medley of tracks at the very end, including “You Really Got Me” and “Lola,” had everyone in the audience on their feet dancing and laughing, with a few tears too - but mainly clapping and jiggling with joy.
The couple sat next to me had travelled especially from Atlanta, Georgia, to be here. They were effusive in their praise for John Dagleish’s potentially career-transforming performance as Ray, George Maguire as Ray’s guitarist brother Dave, and the rest of the cast. I wholeheartedly agree with them.
As we see in the show, The Kinks were famously thrown out of and barred from the USA, thanks largely to run-ins with the country’s musicians’ union. Their American dream quickly became a nightmare. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, decades later, their live music eventually returns to the US – this time in the form of a fantastic Sunny Afternoon, on Broadway.