A few weeks ago Ray Davies was in the building that houses Omnibus Press to attend the launch of a book entitled 100 Years Of British Songwriting, a lavish coffee table affair commissioned by the Performing Rights Society for Music that we had effectively packaged for them. So I sidled up to Ray and had a chat, firstly about his book Americana, which I’d recently read, then about Effingham where Ray had lived and which is close to where we live now, and finally about Sunny Afternoon, the musical based on the music of The Kinks that is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre near Leicester Square. He was, he said, on his way there to check that some new cast members were doing their job in the manner that was expected of them, which is why he ducked out of this bash early. It was a genuine hit, he told me, clearly pleased, and this was the first time I realised how closely involved he evidently is in its production.
Well, it deserves to be a hit I thought last night as I left the Pinter Theatre along with the rest of my family who had conspired to take me there as a surprise birthday treat. It’s lots of fun, like The Kinks a bit topsy-turvy, full of spirit and energy as it combines the juke-box musical format with a plotline that follows the far from comfortable trajectory of The Kinks’ career from The Ravens to headlining at New York's Madison Square Garden, though this latter episode is bolted on at the end a tad hurriedly.
For anyone unfamiliar with the real story of The Kinks, and what was going on behind the scenes, Sunny Afternoon will be a bit of an eye-opener, for Davies – who with playwright Joe Penhall wrote the story as well as the music – hasn’t tried to hide the less than edifying goings-on that were hidden from view, at least until drummer Mick Avory chucked a cymbal at Dave Davies during a gig in Cardiff in 1965. Dave was rushed to hospital, Mick did a runner and it hit the headlines. All this is dramatically played out as the climax to the first act, so audiences who are either too young or unversed in Kinks lore to know about it will probably assume it is dramatic licence. It isn’t.
Neither are the management woes involving the pair of toffs, Robert Wace and Grenville Collins who took them on as The Ravens, inviting experienced impresario Larry Page to join them along with music publisher Eddie Kassner. All these characters are present and correct, all taking their cut and leaving the increasingly paranoid Ray Davies to ponder the wisdom of a career in showbiz that seems to benefit all but him. This isn’t helped by the disaster that was The Kinks’ introduction to America and their subsequent banning from the land of plenty, which occupies some lengthy and especially funny scenes in the second act.
The action is set in Swinging London in the Swinging Sixties with Swinging Dollybirds dancing go-go style against a backdrop of wall-to-wall speakers and along a catwalk that stretches out into the stalls and fosters a close connection with the audience. When the fashion-dedicated group sings the title song towards the end of the second half ticker tape floats down from above, all to recognise the inescapable fact that the world spun around England in those days. After all, we did have The Beatles, the Stones and the World Cup.
Rightly the show is centred around the character of Ray, sympathetically portrayed by gangly John Dagleish, who finds the balance between art – the integrity of his songs – and commerce – the need to be productive – difficult to maintain. The plot hinges on this and his difficult marriage to Rasa Didzpetris (Lillie Flynn), the daughter of Lithuanian refugees who settled in Bradford. Ray – the real Ray – is to be commended for his willingness to permit these glimpses into his private world to be aired in this way.
Meanwhile younger brother Dave (George Maguire), perhaps inspired by the example of Keith Moon, embarks on a debauched journey that involves a regiment of groupies, a fondness for wearing their clothes and a sea of booze, all of which displeases his elder brother to the extent that their relationship descends into toxicity. The ying and yang of the brothers’ relationship serves as a secondary plotline, the more Ray backs away from the pop world’s more disagreeable traits, the more Dave embraces them.
Of course, all this unpleasantness is accompanied by a wealth of brilliant Kinks music, from ‘You Really Got Me’ – with Dave shoving a screwdriver into the amp speaker to create distortion, as per the legend – to ‘Lola’, played as a sing-along encore at the end, as it often was at real Kinks concerts. All the great Kinks songs, and some not so well known ones, crop up along the way, not all of them played by the group. The girls, who double as Ray’s many sisters, screaming fans and dancers on shows like Top of The Pops, get their fair share, as do the male characters from the management, and all of them seem to play some instrument or other, including trombones, trumpets and a banjo. The sound is fattened out by a guitarist and piano player at the rear of the stage and is rarely less than rock gig volume. Nevertheless, ‘Days’ is given a particularly effective a cappella treatment, ‘I Go To Sleep’ is sang by Rasa, on the phone to homesick Ray in America, and ‘Dead End Street’ sees Ma and Pa Davies grumbling about their downtrodden circumstances.
Pride of place, though, is given to Ray’s masterpiece ‘Waterloo Sunset’, played by the group with Rasa on back-up vocals as the penultimate number in the show. Here we find The Kinks in the studio working on the song, bassist Peter Quaife having just decided not to hand in his notice (yet) because he loves playing the descending bass line intro, Dave figuring out the licks on his electric guitar, Ray strumming the chords, Mick tapping softly in the background until it all comes together. “What are the words Ray?” asks one of them. Ray approaches the mike. “Dirty old river…”
As long as I gaze on…
It was the cue for the theatre audience to rise as one and sing along, as did we. Back in the nineties I used to drive my two children to primary school each morning and (to discourage squabbling) I taught them to sing this lovely song as we made our way down Percy Road past Ravenscourt Park to Flora Gardens. They’re no longer kids nowadays but as I glanced across the seats I noted that they still remember the words; paradise and the Southbank sunset were ours. Thanks L, O & S, and thanks Ray for this wonderful song.