How appropriate that prior to Norwich's opening night of Sunny Afternoon, we have been blessed with several days of our own gorgeous spring-like sunshine. One can almost feel the sap rising in anticipation as we take our seats inside the Theatre Royal for this musical account of that most quintessentially English rock band, The Kinks.
Unlike the string of recent 'jukebox musicals', in which storylines are created solely as a mechanism by which to shoe-horn in as many hit songs as possible, Sunny Afternoon sets its stall out quite differently – it is, in effect, the theatrical equivalent of the biopic, placing the artists and their entourage firmly at the centre of the narrative, and using the music and songs to illustrate their story and trajectory. Hence we first meet the four boys from Muswell Hill playing backing band to a fifties crooner at a society ball. From there, we follow them through the writing of their first hits and a record deal, the rankles over management fees and copyright ownership, and the issues and controversies during their US tour which led to them being banned from performing in America for the next four years. Oh, and of course, the in-house rows, fights and spats so familiar within fraternal musical partnerships.
But the beauty of Sunny Afternoon is that, in spite of the stories of back-biting and in-fighting, the sheer joy of the music delivers an evening of nostalgic delight, as well as creating an empathy with every one the characters caught up in those turbulent years. The cast are excellent. Ryan O'Donnell who plays Ray Davies, Mark Newnham who is brother Dave ('The Rave'), Garmon Rhys as the insecure bass player Pete Quaife, and Andrew Gallo, who is quite rightly given the opportunity to deliver his own blistering solo whilst playing as Kinks' drummer Mick Avory authentically bring the band to life, and are obviously talented singers and musicians in their own right. The supporting cast include Lisa Wright, who plays Ray Davies' first wife Rasa with dignity and compassion, and Michael Warburton who adds the humanity to music publishing as label boss Eddie Kassner. And do not forget the energetic team of dancers who authentically take on the role of everything from sixties go-go dancers, to air hostesses and legal secretaries to truly create that 'sixties' buzz throughout the show.
The main set is a huge battery of vintage hi-fi speakers, reminiscent of a Laskys stockroom from the late 1970's. Clever use of lighting both enhances the low-key domestic scenes, and adds intensity to the live song performances. And the sound is excellent. It was a real joy to hear the Theatre Royal resound with the beefy power chords to You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night, yet still handle perfectly the beautiful 'a cappella' arrangement during Days.
Joe Penhall's script is based on an original story by Ray Davies, and so is evidently told with the band leader's perspective at the fore. The rivalry with The Beatles is remembered with a number of cleverly barbed lines about CBE's, lying in bed all day and allowing a wife to sing with the band. And, curiously, two integral personal scenes involving Ray Davies' wife Rasa are performed to Stop Your Sobbing and I Go To Sleep, two Davies songs later covered by The Pretenders. (In the eighties, Davies went on to have a relationship, and father a daughter with The Pretenders' lead singer Chrissie Hynde).
But eventually, even the most perfect sunny afternoon must end, and this one drew to a close with the entire cast urging us to our feet for a rousing sing along to the 1970 classic Lola. This song perhaps marked a watershed for The Kinks, and the band were finally allowed back into the United States to perform at Madison Square Gardens. It is still remembered as one of their finest songs. A perfect point at which to close this chapter in the Kinks' story.