THEATRE (P)REVIEW: Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter Theatre

N.B. This review is of a preview performance on 9 October. The show officially opens on 28 October. If you don’t get this preview/opening night business, WhatsOnStage published an interesting article here this week explaining it all!

booking until 31 January 2015

Ahh another jukebox musical: you either love ’em or hate ’em. As a general rule, I love them and I think there is a fair bit of snobbery around about the genre, not helped by a couple of flops in recent years (Desperately Seeking Susan and Viva Forever!, I’m looking at you I’m afraid…). So, with an average but not overwhelming love of The Kinks, I approached Sunny Afternoon with optimism, which was fully rewarded with a production that bubbles with fun but also contains some serious talent.

The show, which has transferred from a successful run at the Hampstead Theatre, tells the backstory of how one of the biggest bands of the Swinging Sixties found fame – but not necessarily fortune – despite a series of ups and downs. True, it’s a rather familiar tale, but it is told with both humour and soul by a cast and creative team who generate an authentic 60s vibe throughout.

John Dagleish proves he is certainly leading man material as Ray Davies, songwriter and lead vocalist of the band and central figure in the plotline. His impressive vocals are matched by an impression of genuine affinity to the music, and he negotiates the twists in Davies’s sometimes tricky tale skilfully, with soulfulness but not over-sentimentality. He is strongly supported by George Maguire as Dave, the rather loose cannon who frequently brings chaos to proceedings but manages to be surprisingly moving as well as hilarious in his errant unpredictability. Other figures are a little more on the cardboard cut-out side, with sweet but rather one-dimensional appearances from Dominic Tighe and Tam Williams as original managers and resident ‘posh boy’ Tories Robert and Grenville. Lillie Flynne gives a fine performance as Ray’s love interest Rasa, although I would’ve liked to see her character fleshed out more – after a promising start in which she is really the only female character with any depth, her gutsiness and down-to-earth intelligence is rather sidelined in the later stages of the show.

Yet what this show may lack in rounded character development, it more than makes up for in musicianship. Sunny Afternoon is the latest in a spate of shows to have a cast that is not only all-singing and all-dancing, but who also make up the band. This certainly adds authenticity to the band’s tale, but also means that the songs are weaved into the show far more smoothly than some of the jukebox musicals of old. It also enhances the party atmosphere as, with the band right in front of your eyes – especially when you add in the thrust stage and cabaret-style tables at the front of the auditorium – it’s nigh on impossible not be pulled into this infectious brand of vintage pop with its twanging guitars and familiar melodies. There are many highlights, from the high energy of the big hits (‘You Really Got Me’, ‘All Day and All of the Night’ and ‘Lola’) to the more understated, softer numbers (a gorgeous a cappella rendition of ‘Days’ was even greeted by a “bravo!” from up in the circle). Yet it is that old favourite ‘Waterloo Sunset’ that steals the show: its beautifully tempered, slow build up as the band compose the song together creates a quiet power that seems to unite this London audience. At the other end of the scale, title track ‘Sunny Afternoon’ has everyone grinning as an over-abundance of confetti showers the auditorium.

Sunny Afternoon may not have the big-money, big-production impact of some West End musicals, but it is an absolute joy to see an audience so enlivened and this talented cast really do light up the theatre. There’s many a show that gets its audience up and dancing at the end, but there’s few where it feels so genuinely jubilant and heart-warming. Despite a rather predictable plot that flits around a little too quickly through the band’s history, this is a musical that certainly deserves time to cement its presence, and a place in the hearts of London theatregoers.

 With thanks to Official Theatre and the #LDNTheatreBloggers scheme for the ticket.

 

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