Sunny Afternoon: we talk to playwright Joe Penhall and review the show
Although I’m led to believe there were some loudmouthed Kinks fans who expected more of a singalong as well as, equally annoyingly, some professional reviewers who seemed smugly ignorant of the band’s substantial output, there are many reasons why Sunny Afternoon is so much more than just another jukebox musical.
Perhaps the most significant ones are that the songs of The Kinks, as penned by Ray Davies, are timelessly great; that the story of the early days of The Kinks is such a genuinely interesting one; and, not least, the fact that Joe Penhall, the experienced playwright who penned the book, is such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable fan.
“The best songs in the musical are, frankly, some of the best songs in rock,” he contends. “I want to empirically prove to people that these songs are genius and that they’re good for the human soul.
“I’ve always loved the Kinks and felt that as writers, Ray Davies and I shared certain preoccupations. I knew if I got this show right it could be tremendously moving and compelling and funny. And of course the music is irresistible. But the writing in the book has to live up to the writing in the songs, which takes some doing.”
Of course, Davies himself, who put in a very brief, barely acknowledged appearance at last night’s curtain call, has done quite a lot more than merely dabble in the murky waters of the musical over many years. So I assume he’d been a hard man to please with the production, which started life in Hampstead Theatre, a stone’s throw from Davies’ early stomping ground, before transferring to London’s West End where it has been showered with awards. This run at Manchester Opera House marks the premiere of its touring incarnation.
“I’d been wanting to write something about The Kinks since the 90s,” says Penhall. “I knew the story and it had all the elements that fascinated me. I also knew that Ray Davies is probably the one songwriter whose songs would properly work in a theatrical setting. They have the depth and the emotional and psychological complexity. They also have a clear shape and the narrative drive. They fill a stage and stand up to the scrutiny in a way that few pop songs do.
“So when I met Ray I’d already thought about it a lot and, unusually for me, had a very confident, clear vision of how to do it and how not to do it. I made it a condition that I could workshop the script as I went. So we put together a cast of actors and musicians whom we could rely on to be collaborative and inventive. That’s followed through to this production.”
In fact, Ryan O’Donnell who stars as Ray Davies (and, improbably enough, used to be a member of Jethro Tull, prog-folk fact fans) is reprising his starring role from London’s Harold Pinter Theatre. In the vital role of Ray’s brother Dave Davies is Mark Newnham, with Garmon Rhys as bassist Pete Quaife, whose death in 2010 put paid once and for all to ‘Kinks reunion’ rumours. Andrew Gallo, so impressive recently in Parade at Hope Mill Theatre in Ancoats, takes on the role of drummer Mick Avory, whose departure from the band in the mid-80s, says Davies, was “the saddest day for me. Dave and Mick just couldn’t get along. There were terrible fights, and I got to the point where I couldn’t cope with it any more.”
That particular scene is one of the emotional highlights in a production set against the backdrop of a Britain caught mid-swing between the conservative 50s and riotous 60s. The show does a decent job of parsing such a turbulent time, referencing such events as the World Cup and politicians, although there’s not much mention of other artistic upheavals. Instead it, rightly, very much concentrates on the early life of Ray Davies and the rise to stardom of The Kinks.
There are musical anachronisms – surely Lola and Supersonic Rocket Ship came from a later phase? – and there’s a wholly forgivable insouciance when it comes to strict historical chronology. But even the most anal of observers, let alone the more casual fan, surely couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer energy of this marvellous production, which manages to tell a complicated story with wit and verve without glossing over the difficulties.
I haven’t seen the show since its previews at the Hampstead Theatre and it seems to me that – much like the latter-day band themselves in their American stadium rock days – has been somewhat streamlined. To my recollection, there used to be a bit more about Davies’ relationship with his wife Rasa (winningly played by Lisa Wright), although that perhaps stems from his own unwillingness to discuss the relationship in depth, while the sibling rivalry between the very different brothers, the thoughtful Ray and the earthy Dave, looks to have become a bit more like Noel and Liam. But that’s a minor, possibly even unsubstantiated, quibble for a terrific show.
Part of the reason The Kinks’ story remains so compelling, believes Penhall, is because “they were the band who never sold out, largely because they didn’t know how to. They were the first ever punks but they were too chaotic, too unruly and organic for their own good. They were offered the opportunity to commercialise their look and their sound but they turned it down, or simply didn’t grasp the importance of it. I prefer to think it was the former. Ray jokes that it’s the latter.
“But either way, it’s a timely reminder that the music business wasn’t always as vacuous as it is now and that it doesn’t have to be. Ray’s been writing about this since the 60s in his songs. He was the first writer to realise that his generation of young working-class musicians had taken up music to escape working in a factory, only to find that the grind of the modern day corporate rock business is just as exploitative and reductive. It’s also a fable about the price of authenticity. The music business is a tough racket and The Kinks have had the most torrid relationship with it. There are all sorts of fascinating reasons for that.
“Why aren’t the band as big or as rich as The Stones or The Who, given that they had the same initial success? I wanted to find the answer.
“The story is so picaresque and diverse in its various tones, it was hard to give it unity,” he admits. “It’s a big rollicking story, a comedy of errors in a way. But I also wanted it to be a salutary anatomy of the music business and the processes involved, given the contemporary obsession with instant stardom.
“There were also elements of melodrama, Ray and Dave Davies’ lives taking some quite tragic turns, dealing with their fair share of mental illness, pain and loss. And finally there’s a deeply moving, redemptive quality to the fable of two brothers born into dire poverty, in a family with eight children, living in a two-bedroom rented house, becoming two of the most iconic rock stars of their generation. That particular element of the story I find incredibly moving for some reason.
“None of it is fiction,” he emphasises. “But a lot of it is Ray’s recollection, so it’s his point of view, which may differ from others’ recollections.”
Davies is said to be working on a musical adaptation of his book Americana, partly chronicling the band’s subsequent career in America. That’s an intriguing prospect, especially given the theatricality and visible music hall roots of that incarnation. But for the time being, this hugely entertaining show will do very nicely indeed.
Sunny Afternoon is at the Manchester Opera House until August 27, 2016, then touring. For more information, click here.
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