The music of Ray Davies and The Kinks is hallowed ground for many. So it was with some trepidation and gallons of expectation that writer Joe Penhall's Kinks musical opened at Hampstead Theatre earlier this year.
Fortunately, the reviews couldn't have been more favourable, and now this funny, touching and riotously exciting production has transferred to the West End, where, by rights, it should be a huge hit.
On the face of it, the story of The Kinks might sound like a rather predictable narrative: a 60s band that stumbles from early pop success to disillusion and bitterness via hedonism and wrangling over royalties. But there's so much more going on here, not least the relentless volatility of the band itself, revolving around the turbulent relationship between Ray (John Dagleish) and wayward younger brother Dave (George Maguire). "We all feel isolated," Ray tells another band member. "That's what being in a band is about — you're lucky you're not in The Who!"
Such knowing quips pepper the show, which is full of cheeky humour and lively set-pieces (Dave swinging from a chandelier, dressed in drag, is particularly memorable), as well as a fair amount of tragedy. But it's the music that makes this one of the most electrifying productions in the West End. Expertly performed by the cast, with a couple of backing musicians to help, Ray Davies' magical songs are woven seamlessly through the narrative, sometimes in a gig scenario, at others in a more traditional musical theatre format, but always skilfully adapted and stylishly choreographed to embellish the story happening around them.
Though it might be blasphemous to say it, some songs even have a poignancy that would be hard to find in their original recordings, simply because we see them performed alongside the real life episodes that inspired them. Even where this isn't the case, some are so beautifully reimagined to fit the story that we happily buy into whatever narrative liberties they might be taking. Days, for example, is staged as a tear-jerking a-cappella harmony when the band part ways from their two original managers.
By contrast, the most delightful and thrilling moments are where we witness the genesis of classic songs — as flies on the wall to some of the greatest song-writing achievements in the history of popular music. It's a joy to see the teenage Ray and Dave writing the iconic riff for You Really Got Me in their Muswell Hill bedroom. And later comes the composing of the sublime Waterloo Sunset — possibly the best song ever written about London.
But perhaps the show's greatest strength is how it captures the spirit of the band. Just as Mamma Mia manages to embody the infectious ebullience of Abba, so Sunny Afternoon shows us not just the music and story of The Kinks, but their very essence. It is raw, honest, inventive, cheeky, charming, frantic and wholly captivating, just like the band itself. If you'll pardon the obvious pay-off, Sunny Afternoon really gets The Kinks.
By Dan Frost
Sunny Afternoon is on at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 23 May 2015. Tickets start from £15 and need to be booked in advance online. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.