Musicals based on the back catalogues of beloved bands often have an advantage in that often theatregoers who would rather rub chillis in their eyes then be dragged to a musical can be found lining up around the block; depending on the cachet of the band in question. “Sunny Afternoon” has a more respectable pedigree than most, drawing it’s songs from the back catalogue of The Kinks, one of the most respected and idiosyncratic bands of 1960’s. Given that the story is that of the band itself, most of the songs are presented as either live performances or recording sessions rather than spontaneously bursting song as per usual (not that Sunny Afternoon is entirely free of such moments, early in the play they come regrettably often). Whilst the story is perfectly charming the real meat is from the bands songbook.
Considering that ‘Swinging London’ was at the heart of the 1960’s counterculture, it’s amazing how far many musicians from the capital went to disguise their origins. Singers strained themselves trying to sound more American and in the wake of The Beatles mammoth success there was even a spate of faux-Liverpudlian accents on the airwaves (a first and a last thankfully). The Kinks by comparison took a pride in their English heritage that occasionally bordered on the obsessive, especially in the case of lead songwriter Ray Davies. Working class, eccentric both drawn to and repulsed by fame, his songs frequently skewered little heralded facets of English life in a manner quite alien to the America worship common to his peers. Indeed one of the musicals best sequences takes place during the bands disastrous first tour of America, where the homesick Davies begins to shake apart.
Whilst the play has a shuddering start that’s more “rainy Monday morning in Hull” than Sunny Afternoon, things soon find themselves as Ray (played by a good if not incendiary John Dagleish) and his wilder brother Dave (George Maguire delivering the play’s best performance) come up with the immortal riff to You Really Got Me in their bedroom and proceed to crank up the volume until the entire theatre is shaking with the kind of decibels more common in war zones than Mamma Mia! The script is filled with groan/giggle inducing sly winks and nods to future events (“Come on get up and do something! You wouldn’t catch John Lennon staying in bed all day with his wife” is very much the speed). Momentum is built swiftly however and some of the final songs are accorded a surprisingly affecting poignancy, the finale of Waterloo Sunset at any rate seemed to have a few audience members suddenly discovering something in their eye.
Obviously how much enjoyment one is going to derive from this is entirely based on what one feels about The Kinks but anyone with even a passing appreciation for the band will find it hard not to get into the spirit of it, regardless of any lingering PTSD over musicals. The three hour runtime might seem a little punishing occasionally but considering the general quality (opening 15 minutes excluded) there’s little left to be desired.