Muddy Reviews: Sunny Afternoon, Theatre Royal, Brighton
I once got chatting to a British expat who had lived in Australia for nearly three decades. She told me that for the first few homesick years she would burst into tears whenever she heard The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset.
It may seem strange that a song with the opening lyric ‘Dirty old river…’ could have that effect on someone who could now spend her weekends on Bondi Beach but I wasn’t surprised; Waterloo Sunset is one of my own Desert Island Discs (I just know I’ll get the call from the BBC any day now…) and Ray Davies who penned it is a genius songwriter.
The Kinks have a staggeringly strong back catalogue and Blur are among the many more contemporary bands they’ve influenced. It’s this hit-after-hit heritage that is celebrated in the Olivier award-winning West End musical Sunny Afternoon, based on the band’s formative years, which is on tour and is the brilliant Christmas show at Brighton’s Theatre Royal this year.
I was at the opening night and there was a great buzz in the lobby where a revolving mobile of donated vinyl records has been erected as a centrepiece.
As we took our seats we could already see this would be something a bit different as the stage jutted, catwalk-like out into the audience to create a more immersive experience. It soon became clear that the actors were also accomplished musicians who were really playing their guitars and drums.
This is not a musical with a backing track or house band, it’s part play, part live gig and it had us all on our feet by the end. It’s the perfect show to get you in the mood for Christmas and New Year or to gift someone tickets for.
The story of the rise of The Kinks in the Sixties is partly poignant – not least because Ray Davies’ sister gave him his first guitar the day she died – and partly classic Rock ‘n’ Roll, with booze and drugs benders, battles with management, a legal challenge over a contract and two warring brothers (Ray and Dave were at it way before the Gallaghers).
Mark Newnham (who has previously played John Lennon) particularly stands out as the often comic ‘Dave the Rave’ while Ryan O’Donnell as Ray carries off moving solos as things turn sour on an ill-fated US tour. His onstage wife is played by Lisa Wright, a singer/songwriter in her own right, who duets beautifully with him for some of the more intimate numbers.
The action is mainly studio or gig-based with a stylised set covered in speakers for most scenes. The supporting cast ramp up the fun – especially some leggy female dancers who will have the women in the audience no doubt sighing, like me, over their great Sixties outfits and the men, well, just sighing.
Sure it’s a jukebox musical and those who know their Kinks discography (it’s also printed in the programme) shouldn’t expect songs to appear chronologically. You find out something of the evolution of the band’s 1964 breakthrough hit You Really Got Me but most others are slotted in wherever it fits with the action, the satirical Follower of Fashion for instance as the band has its makeover.
Sometimes the show teases you, dropping in the intro to a big hit and leaving it dangling for a scene while the band work on the song or are sidetracked by other problems. We know The Kinks’ future before the band do and this is played to comic effect at times. There are also a few Beatles jokes in the same vein: “do you think John Lennon would stay in bed all day?”
Some hits like You Really Got Me and Lola are storming set pieces with the guitar really ramped up – my husband pointed out you don’t really get the full sound from the original recordings on old technology. Others are interestingly re-worked, for instance Days – another great favourite of mine – is performed as a moving a capella.
As for the rendition of Waterloo Sunset towards the end… well it made me cry.
Tears aside, it’s the perfect feel-good show for Christmas. Plan a night out around it before it sells out.
Sunny Afternoon runs at The Theatre Royal, Brighton, Tues 13 – Sat 31 Dec, Tickets cost from £15. Be aware that the show contains swearing. Theatre Royal, New Road, Brighton, 0844 871 7650 atgtickets.com