Review: Sunny Afternoon (New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham)
The tempestuous early years of British band The Kinks are recreated in this musical packed full of songs from the group’s back catalogue
First performed at London's Hampstead Theatre two years ago, Sunny Afternoon is now on a UK tour with dates scheduled until next May. With story, music and lyrics by former Kinks frontman Ray Davies, the tale is told from a very personal perspective as the audience sees his struggles to make the band a success.
Founded by four friends, including brothers Ray and Dave Davies, in Muswell Hill in 1964, The Kinks went on to achieve that success both in the UK and internationally but it was no easy road. With conflicts and even physical fights between band members, pressure from music executives, the relentless grind of touring and family tensions, the group, who were only in their late teens and early twenties at that time, are seen to lurch from one crisis to another.
Famous and infamous incidents from the band's history are revived for the audience including the notorious fight on stage at their 1965 Cardiff concert and their touring ban in the United States.
The show is an endless stream of Kinks' hits including "You Really Got Me", "Dedicated Follower of Fashion", "All Day and All of the Night", "Waterloo Sunset" and "Sunny Afternoon" – some performed as part of the narrative and others as recreations of concerts. The production also features songs written by Davies but best-known for being performed by other bands and singers including "I Go to Sleep" and "Stop Your Sobbing", both closely connected with The Pretenders whose singer Chrissie Hynde is a former partner of Davies.
But it's not all about the music and Davies, together with Joe Penhall, have ensured that at the heart of Sunny Afternoon lies a story in which a group of young people have a dream and then realise that achieving it is much more difficult and personally painful than they had ever believed.
Across the board the cast are impressive both as actors and musicians, constantly changing musical instruments, singing and performing tightly compacted choreography created by Adam Cooper.
Ryan O'Donnell plays the troubled Ray, revealing both his exuberance on stage but also his vulnerability at home as he sinks into depression and disillusion at discovering top ten singles don't necessarily bring happiness. Mark Newnham adds a comic touch with brother Dave, a youngster who wants to party, party and party some more and cannot understand his brother's reluctance to live the rock ‘n' roll lifestyle. Lisa Wright wins sympathy as Ray's first wife Rasa. The fragility of their relationship is beautifully highlighted by a late night telephone call in which the two lovers speak and yet don't connect; their home life ripped apart by Ray's constant touring.
Directed by Edward Hall and designed by Miriam Buether, the staging brings the action into the audience with a catwalk stage into the stalls and a backdrop of musical speakers. While Kinks fans will enjoy the music, the gritty realism of the band's early struggles will hit home with any audience - the domestic and professional dramas at the centre of these conflicts aren't exclusive to The Kinks.
But central place does belong to that music and the real strengths of Sunny Afternoon are the high number of really great tracks and Davies' songwriting skills.
Sunny Afternoon runs at Birmingham New Alexandra Theatre until 10 September and then continues on tour.