Critics go wild again for Sunny Afternoon
The Kinks musical, created by Ray Davies, brings the house down at the Harold Pinter Theatre
If all jukebox musicals were as well crafted as Sunny Afternoon, the genre would have a much better reputation than it does... Where many pack the songs around a tenuous plotline, or simply serve up a string of hits with little or no narrative thread, this Kinks show, created by Ray Davies, finds a neat balance between the two... At its heart sits an outstanding performance from John Dagleish as Davies, who is totally convincing as the insomniac cockney genius who thinks in music... Davies' autobiographical story, which has been honed by playwright Joe Penhall, encompasses the full story of the 'Muswell Hillbillies', as they grow from teenage dancehall performers to world-conquering rock stars... Edward Hall's production has transplanted successfully from Hampstead to the Harold Pinter, where a catwalk thrusts out into the stalls and small cabaret tables fringe the auditorium... It's perhaps a couple of songs too long, running at three hours in total, but when the tunes are this good... it would seem churlish to complain.
I was taken aback by the richness of the songs... the ingenuity of Joe Penhall's book lies in the way it uses those songs to chart the ups-and-downs of four working-class boys from Muswell Hill... Even at their chirpiest, the songs contain an undertow of melancholic solitude... Penhall also shows how the most delicate on-stage harmonies were accompanined by deep personal disharmonies... Edward Hall's joyous production neatly allows the songs to grow out of the story and the cast is first-rate... John Dagleish, who actually resembles an elongated John Lennon, perfectly captures Ray Davies's mix of bloody-mindnedness and innocence... Lillie Flynn as Ray's wife, and Philip Bird as an overpowering Allen Klein also impress in a versatile ensemble... At close to three hours, the show is on the long side but it offers a heady celebration of a quintessentially English talent.
Beside the composite jukeboxes made up of the songs of many artists like The Commitments or the tribute shows like Thriller Live, this does a lot more... It has been lovingly assembled with a wittily impressionistic, occasionally impassioned, book by Joe Penhall, that brings the band's internal and external struggles to full-bodied, three-dimensional life... Edward Hall's production has more room to breathe on the West End stage, with the action spilling happily beyond it into the stalls via a ramp that bisects the front rows... There is also some cabaret seating at the front and back of the stalls to add to the atmosphere... Most of the Hampstead cast remain, led as before by the superb John Dagleish as Davies and George Maguire as his brother Dave... A British musical of vim and vigour makes a successful transfer.
Sunny Afternoon doesn't feel like a big West End show, but that's a compliment to Ed Hall's spunky production and its air of scrubbed-up anarchy... Its cast may only be modest in size, but by the end they all feel like old friends, wandering freely into the audience in a theatre made more intimate via cabaret seating and a runway projecting deep into the stalls... John Dagleish puts in the show's most compelling performance as Ray... Miriam Buether's Swinging Sixities designs are wonderful and the hit-packed last 20 minutes utterly joyous... it's great that the bulk of the songs are blasted out in the bone-rattling style of a gig rather than being prettified for the theatre... Nonetheless, for all its stylish insouciance, I felt Sunny Afternoon fell short on ambition... Penhall's book is a simplistic, sentimental summary... There are still genuflections to musical theatre convention... Sunny Afternoon is a superior jukebox musical that deserves to be a hit.
This certainly isn't your average greatest hits album crowbarred into a narrative of dubious quality... Instead, the songs enjoy a multitude of sophisticated arrangements, sometimes with just snatches played... It's hard to praise sufficiently the phenomenal lead performance given by John Dagleish as Ray... He sings and plays guitar with both attack and élan, and convinces totally as a young man confused and underwhelmed by the arrival of fame... George Maguire is also in top-notch form as his wild-card, live-wire, trouble-making younger sibling Dave... For all the energy and skill bubbling away, Edward Hall's confident production occasionally lacks forward momentum... Joe Penhall's impressionistic script steers us elegantly through the group falling foul of the American musicians' federation and endless contractual wrangles with their management, but these events too feel oddly weightless... The Kinks don their new Robin Hood-style green suits to sing "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" and all is wonderful again.