Sunny Afternoon Review

Harold Pinter Theatre, London – 19 February 2016

Joe Penhall’s Olivier Award winning musical tells the story of how Ray and Dave Davies, ordinary lads from Muswell Hill, came to form one of the defining bands of the Sixties. And it does more than chart the Kinks’ early highs and lows using the best of their back-catalogue.

Even at their chirpiest, the songs contain an undertow of melancholic solitude. But Penhall also shows how the most delicate on-stage harmonies were accompanied by deep personal disharmonies, with Ray constantly at war with his madcap brother, Dave, or the band engaged in battles with exploitative middle-men or American unions

Danny Horn is exceptionally good in the central role of Ray Davies. His singing voice is beautiful. Making us buy the idea of Davies as an unusual, brooding creator, the off-beat, stammering Muswell Hill lad who found he was best able to express himself on a guitar.

Oliver Hoare is suitably manic as Ray’s brother and band mate Dave. Tom Whitelock plays shy bass guitarist Pete, and Damien Walsh is fabulous drummer Mick. A live band at the back of the stage helps the cast perform the songs.

Although the story isn’t massively substantial, there are some emotional moments, particularly towards the end when things really start to unravel for the front man Ray Davies. There is also a neat political subtext, as their Tory managers have to face up to the fact that heartthrobs like The Kinks are starting to become the true aristocracy.

The play works hard to set the scene, referencing other contemporary bands, although some of the jokes are a bit too knowing at times (of the ‘there’s a little band called The Who, you won’t have heard of them” ilk). The script is at its best when it is rife with tension; the turbulent end to the first half is gripping and matches the intensity of some of the high tempo rock and roll on display.

The Kinks’ records are fantastically showcased, and Penhall’s book is seamlessly smooth and sprinkled with wit. Each number finds its moment, with the biggest hits evenly spaced. “Sunny Afternoon” celebrates that euphoric summer of ’66 with a ticker tape drop to mark England’s World Cup win. “Days” becomes a gorgeous acapella nostalgia trip, and “Waterloo Sunset” is artfully de-constructed to reveal its workings as the band re-find their rhythm. Five or six songs with guttural guitar riffs rip through the theatre to thrilling effect.

Directed by Edward Hall, the show is nippy, colourful and euphoric.  The set has been designed with a long ramp running out into the stalls, enabling the action to flow constantly into the audience and back onto the stage. The scene can switch fluently from lounge or studio to hotel room or the interior of an aircraft, with dancing girls, screaming fans or a TV studio full of technicians available at the snap of a finger. The musical performances sizzle with gig-like energy.  It helps that all the cast members actually play their own instruments and even are at the back of the stage playing during scenes they aren’t involved in. It gives that rare feeling that you’re actually seeing a live band in a musical

Sunny Afternoon has to the noisiest, wildest, most fun musical in London’s West End at the moment.  Totally deserving of its awards.  Full of life – buy your ticket today