Originally published on London Box Office
“It’s all about the atmosphere” says the lead character Ray Davies (John Dagleish) just before the last (and best) song of this particular musical. And he’s not wrong. But whilst most of the audience was up on their feet dancing and singing along, I was sat at a table wondering why I wasn’t doing the same. The atmosphere for me was lacking in this production, I couldn’t help but think that it came up short against other jukebox musicals in the West End at the moment (Jersey Boys is my gold standard in this category).
I was really looking forward to seeing Sunny Afternoon, currently on stage at the Harold Pinter Theatre, and rock out to one of the most famous 1960s Brit rock groups – The Kinks. Of course, despite going to see a musical titled Sunny Afternoon, in typical London fashion it was cold, dark and pouring with rain (in retrospect Rainy and Dreary is probably a more apt title for this show). But along with a theatre friend and budding director of mine, I sat down at a table and chairs that were set on either side of the stalls in anticipation of some classic songs like ‘Lola’ and ‘Waterloo Sunset’. I really liked the table and chairs idea, it made me feel a bit like I was in a music hall 60 years ago. But by the end the novelty had worn off – most of the show had no relevance to that intimate setting and the chairs were not as comfortable as the cushioned theatre seats I’ve come to know and love.
Sunny Afternoon tells of The Kinks’ rise to fame, conquering the British music scene in the 1960s and spearheading the British invasion into the American market before eventually being famously banned from performing entirely in the US. The story revolves around the Davies’ brothers Ray (Dagleish) and Dave (George Maguire) as the band’s founding members, and their at times rocky relationship both with their management and between themselves. The story is spun around a number of those classic songs that epitomise The Kinks’ classic rock sound, complete with Ray’s trademark lyrics that centre around working class British life.
The first thing that struck me about this production was the set. Miriam Buether has cleverly used old wooden speakers to decorate the walls of the stage reminiscent of that 1960s era, I felt like I was watching a recording session in a studio. The instruments were on stage throughout the show and there were only a few other props, reflecting the band’s humble working class background. I also enjoyed that the band members played their own instruments as well – it gave a bit of authenticity to the performance. Ray (Dagleish), Dave (Maguire), Pete Quaife (Ned Derrington) and Mick Avory (Adam Sopp) had a great chemistry together and this came across in the music as a fitting tribute to the original group. The other cast members were obviously musical as well, in particular the two original band managers Robert Wace (Dominic Tighe) and Grenville Collins (Tam Williams), who would whip out their trombones every so often and accompany some of the more up tempo numbers.
The problem with this performance though was not the actors’ musical capabilities. The singing was fine too and although no-one had a faultless vocal performance, no-one was particularly awful. The problem wasn’t with the acting either – Dave (Maguire) was a convincing overly confident young rockstar and Ray (Dagleish) portrayed the outwardly confident and inwardly insecure sides of the band’s lead singer well. One of the issues here thought was that there was nothing outstanding about anyone’s performance and writing this now I can’t really think of anything that sticks in my memory, good or bad, about the acting or the singing.
The real problem was the story. If I didn’t know anything about The Kinks or their rock and roll lifestyle I would have thought that they led quite a tame life, based on the book that Ray Davies has written. The first half moved at a snail’s pace and there was no real excitement in the story at any point. The second half focussed on the American tour – considering that the band was banned from playing anywhere in the USA I expected there to be some fireworks in this half. But even the fight scenes between band members or with producers seemed dull. The accents from any American on stage were awful and the writing felt lazy, as if the book had no direction. Unlike the songs, originally written full of clever observations and performed with high octane energy, the whole musical was bland and flat. Even when the audience was up dancing at the end, I felt so disheartened and disconnected with the show that I didn’t get out of my chair, and I’m usually the first one up and dancing around (especially when the chair is that uncomfortable).
Overall, I left the theatre feeling as bleak as the London weather. This particular jukebox musical was stuck on the same broken record for me and unfortunately the performers just weren’t given the opportunity to shine.