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A musical doesn’t have to be original to be stormingly successful – commercially or as a piece of work. Now transferred to the West End, Sunny Afternoon is, as the title suggests, a jukebox show featuring the songs of Ray Davies and telling his story and that of his band The Kinks through most of the 1960s: their rise and near-fall. That story hits pretty much all the rock-narrative archetypes, concentrating on “Will success spoil these down-to-earth boys?” and “What price integrity or even sanity?” Every step feels thoroughly familiar. And still it works fantastically well.
Part of this is due to Davies’ investment in his own story. He tried his own hand a few years ago at writing and performing in a semi-autobiographical musical, Come Dancing, but he seemed ill at ease with the semi-ness of it. Davies has always been an ambivalent performer himself, so the intimacy of the story is paradoxically complemented by the fact that John Dagleish, playing Ray, does not try to impersonate him. In a further twist of the paradox, George Maguire as Davies’ younger brother and regular, often violent, antagonist Dave is the spitting image of the real man.
Scriptwriter Joe Penhall has an eye both for historical-hindsight gags (when Ray has a breakdown, his manager berates him: “You’d never see John Lennon lying around in bed for several days doing nothing”) and finding motifs that resonate today as then, such as the uneasy but somehow practical relationship between this quartet of Muswell Hill boys and their patrician managers. Penhall stitches dialogue and song together seamlessly, although in truth so many of the songs (only about half here being proper “greatest hits” selections) could almost have been written for this very purpose. Davies père’s protests about the family’s poverty slides into “Dead End Street”, and “Stop Your Sobbing” becomes an imprecation at Ray’s awkward wedding.
Climactically, all the relationships – fraternal, marital and with the other band members Pete and Mick – are beautifully resolved in a sequence which shows the gradual construction of “Waterloo Sunset”. I’d have thought that, in my fifties, I ought to be able to hear this song without tears welling up. Some chance; I defy anyone to resist it, or this show.