Sunny Afternoon at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh is not only an affectionate homage to the music of The Kinks, but also an innovative work of theatre in its own right. With music, lyrics and original story by Ray Davies and book by John Penhall, this is a skilfully written work that looks at much more than just the music. In “Sunny Afternoon” we examine as an audience the mercenary working of the music recording and publishing industry of the day and how everybody involved gets their percentage – often at the expense of the artist and writers themselves, and also the pressures on artists to deal with their newfound fame. These pressures are particularly acute for some artists like Ray Davies who see their music as having more meaning and substance than many around them in a business where their creations are simply disposable products and their life as a group or artist is only potentially as long as the next song to be quickly written and released being a hit or failure.
Even taking the music out of the story, “Sunny Afternoon” would still work for me as a work of theatre as it is so well written and directed (Edward Hall) that there are real and well rounded characters on stage. As an audience, we can actually start to care what happens to Ray and Dave as we explore not only the family dynamics between them and their economic and social backgrounds, but also those around them.
As always though, the success or failure of “Sunny Afternoon” was always going to rest with its two stars – Ryan O’ Donnell as Ray Davies and Mark Newnham as Dave Davies, and both are not only outstanding in their respective roles, but create on stage not only the tensions between the two almost opposite personalities of their characters, but also that bond between two brothers who need one another more than they even perhaps realise and who each at times wish could be a bit more like the other.
The Kinks were of course a band and not just Ray and Dave, and there are solid performances here from Garmon Rhys as Pete Quaife (bass guitar) and Andrew Gallo as Mick Avory (Drums). Together, these on stage Kinks are a talented band in their own right who play all their instruments live and sing live...that is undoubtedly a huge part of the success of this show.
Everyone in this cast brings a lot to the performance, but for me special mention goes to Lisa Wright as Rasa who as Ray’s wife not only witnesses but has to deal with first hand the downside effects that the pressures of fame can have on someone.
This show is at the end though about The Kinks and their music, and that story is well documented here as we follow Ray and Dave from teenagers playing as a wedding band, through to their first record contract, the almost career-ending tour of America and the later years. Very good design from Miriam Buether with walls of vintage style speakers (a real wall of sound) and a stage that has a runway into the audience allows not only the visual scene to be set, but the barriers between audience and stage to be broken down, and this is particularly effective in the opening wedding scene. Choreography by Adam Cooper is sharp and very “of the time” and the costumes are some of the most period authentic I have seen in a long time on a show like this.
Ray Davies and Dave Davies are probably two of the most under-estimated writers in British pop music history, and at the time their music often got overshadowed by The Beatles (whose didn’t?) but this show reminds us just how many classic songs there are in the back catalogue of the group. The best songs of Ray and Dave are up there alongside the very best of their contemporaries. All the big songs that you would expect are there – “Sunny Afternoon”, “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “Lola” to name but a few. Nice to hear too “Stop Your Sobbing” (a song I first heard when The Pretenders released their version), and of course the sublime “Waterloo Sunset”.
Sunny Afternoon could so easily have turned into the trap that shows like this can easily become – a rather boring run through a back catalogue of music by a tribute band, but it does not do this because the show is far above that level and has a real story, real emotions and an innovative use of re-working the music of The Kinks where necessary into the story line itself and at times re-arranging the songs to fit narrative, and the almost choral version of “Days” here is a great example of just how creative this show is.
Sunny Afternoon is I think the best of this format of show that I have seen to date, and the only problem with it is that it has such a short run this time round at the Playhouse, as I am sure it could pull the crowds in for much longer.
Review by Tom King