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SUNNY AFTERNOON – Hampstead Theatre, London.

sunny afternoon, hampstead theatreIf you didn’t know the Kinks hailed from Muswell Hill, you certainly will by the end of the Hampstead Theatre’s first musical, which basks in the glory of the local boys made good. It’s also an apt venue in which to tell the tale of these beleaguered underdogs of British rock, lending a more intimate connection than a giant West End stage – although this is another hit almost certain to transfer.

Sunny Afternoon sticks with the rags-to-riches jukebox formula that’s made shows like Jersey Boys steady if not entirely original successes; you’ll soon fill up your band biopic bingo card. There’s the humble origins, meteoric rise, artistic crises, profit-stealing managers, inevitable squabbles and breakdowns, followed by triumphant comeback just in time for the encore.

Joe Penhall’s crisp, economic script motors through the years with ease, but the hectic timeline means limited reflection, conflicts resolved rather quickly, and themes stated but underdeveloped. The class consciousness is established up top, the cockney Kinks clashing with earnest aristos, and the irony of this working-class band being thrown out of America for failing to pay union dues is well sketched.

But a fascinating – and oddly timely – reference to the chasm between Macmillan’s ‘You’ve never had it so good’ rhetoric and the cost of living crisis experienced by many is left hanging. A rendition of ‘Dead End Street’ should develop it further, but is sung (and danced) with too much cheery abandon to really land as protest.

This disconnect in an otherwise dynamic Edward Hall production stems from the imprecise use of songs. It’s a thrill witnessing the creation and build-up of big hits like ‘You Really Got Me’ (despite the revisionist history here, with Ray taking credit for the amp shredding, rather than Dave), though more emotionally engaging are the introspective numbers like ‘Sitting In My Hotel’ and ‘I Go To Sleep’ – raw and aching with melancholy.

Many others land somewhere in between, not quite fully delivered concert performances, nor narratively satisfying. Part of the problem is the sound balance, with the stellar live band overpowering the singers and drowning out the wry, nuanced lyrics. ‘It’s not about the words – it’s about the atmosphere,’ explains Ray at one point. True of pop songs, perhaps, but a flaw in musical theatre.

That might not be an issue with more generic fare, but Sunny Afternoon showcases an astonishingly rich back catalogue by intelligent, subversive artists. Perhaps a more limited chronology would have allowed for a drama to match, rather than reducing the story to bullet points: X Factor-esque dead relative inspiration and splashes of conflict between two brothers, one cringing under the glare of the spotlight, the other thirsting for it.

Unsurprisingly, given Ray Davies’ creative input, the character of Ray is practically a saint, the tortured genius crushed beneath the yoke of fame. He’s rescued from caricature by a superb performance from John Dagleish, alternately soulful and darkly witty. His underplayed interactions with Lillie Flynn’s spirited Rasa are beautifully genuine.

George Maguire gets the comic turn as bolshy livewire Dave, drinking, cross-dressing and literally swinging from the chandeliers. Adam Sopp and Ned Derrington, as dour drummer Mick and sweet bassist Pete respectively, get short shrift – this is really the Ray show – but do well with limited material.

Among an energetic supporting cast, many of whom play several instruments, Dominic Tighe and Tam Williams are reliable comic relief as the wide-eyed posho managers, Philip Bird heartfelt as Ray and Dave’s dad and hilarious as a combative American lawyer, and Ben Caplan compelling as the ambitious publisher, despite a wandering accent and muffled delivery.

It’s joyous Sixties nostalgia, complete with World Cup celebrations and an upbeat conclusion that passes over some of the Kinks’ darker experiences. Given the bold honesty of Davies’ work, that’s something of a disappointment, but if the show plays it safe, it does at least guarantee a swinging time and another smash for the Hampstead.

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Reviewed 07/05/14/

By Marianka Swain

14th April – 24th May 2014
Hampstead Theatre, London, NW3.

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