|By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN
Just before Sunny Afternoon, a jukebox biography of The Kinks in general and its lead singer and composer Ray Davies in particular, hits its forceful stride, this terrific new British musical quickly dispenses with the obligatory clichés of the genre such as family indifference, creative teething problems and the inevitable personality clashes. You’ve seen it all before in Jersey Boys and Beautiful.
Having adroitly established the time (1964) and the place (Muswell Hill in London), writer Joe Penhall, working from material supplied by Ray Davies, inks in the foibles and personalities of the show’s two dominating characters – Ray Davies himself and his volatile, dysfunctional younger brother Dave – with some bold strokes of characterisation that bring these working-class polar opposites to dramatic life.
The process is further enhanced by two outstanding performances from John Dagleish as Ray and George McGuire as Dave, the latter looking eerily like the sibling he plays.
Unlike the majority of British pop groups of the mid-60s that definitively put the North of England on the pop world’s musical map, The Kinks were London lads whose songs, courtesy of Ray, celebrated the city of their birth. Davies wrote about the people and the places he knew. He made music out of the mundane, and one of the great strengths of this show is the way it delves into the creative process.
In one of the best scenes, we watch the creation of "Waterloo Sunset." And although in reality it didn’t quite happen the way it’s depicted here, it nevertheless gives you a palpable sense of the way Davies and his group worked.
Though the Kinks stayed together until 1996 (their last recording was made in 1993) Sunny Afternoon ends in 1969. Skillfully worked into Penhall’s economic yet revealing script are most of the defining events of their formative years.
We’re privy to the creation of their first hit, "You Really Got Me;" the unfavourable contracts they signed with Robert Waice (Dominic Tighe) and Grenville Collins (Tam Williams); their exploitative, toff-like managers who were all too aware of their differences in class; the manic, unpredictable behaviour of Dave culminating in an on-stage fracas with the band’s drummer, Mick Avory (a brilliant Adam Sopp); the defection of bassist Pete Quaife (a simpatico Ned Derrington); their disastrous American tour, which resulted in a four-year ban from the country for refusing to pay their union dues; Ray’s forced marriage to his first wife Rasa (Lillie Flynn), whom he made pregnant; the birth of his first daughter; and the fortuitous appearance of the high-powered American pop impresario Allen Klein (Philip Bird), who renegotiates their contracts on more favourable terms and brings them back to the States where they are only moderately successful.
The show ends on a high with a rousing rendition of "Lola" that, quite literally, has the audience dancing in the aisles. Also effectively showcased are "Dead-End Street," "All Day and All of the Night," "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" and of course the imperishable title number.
Miriam Buether’s set, a collection of high-powered speakers attached to three walls, which, in the American sequences, changes to variations of the stars and stripes flag, provides a discreet, unflashy yet evocative milieu, while her costumes add authenticity to the overall 60s mood of the piece.
The impeccable direction, which makes effective use of a thrust stage, is by Edward Hall. He’s blessed with a really wonderful cast, a clutch of great songs, and Penhall’s penetrating and often moving book. Unequivocally the best British musical in a couple of decades.