Tuesday, May 12, 2015

'Sunny Afternoon' at The Harold Pinter Theatre, 11th May 2015

The 1960s are the most obnoxious decade of the 20th century. Fetishised to death and back, they've become a bottomless mine of nostalgia. Baby boomers purr in happiness as pop culture paints a picture of halcyon summery days where the music was matchless, the politics were right-on and the slang was groovy, man. I'm sick of this shit; the myth of the sixties primarily functioning as an excuse for old farts to nurse a superiority complex over today's youth. 

The Beatles' jukebox musical Let It Be solidified this in my mind. That show is a shameless cashgrab in which four waxworks soullessly churn out hits to a backdrop of overplayed stock footage and swirling psychedelic flowers. I figured Sunny Afternoon would be cut from the same cloth, a shrinkwrapped nostalgia pill for tourists eager for a simulation of swinging London.

I was glad to be proved wrong. With a story by Ray Davies and written by Joe Penhall, Sunny Afternoon proves to be acerbic, cynical and unnervingly honest. It's able to do this because unlike the Beatles, The Kinks have largely resisted being mythologised - their biography is open to interpretation rather than just recitation. This allows Davies to bemoan the lie of swinging London, explaining that the pretty girls with flowers in their hair on the King's Road were a smokescreen for millions of working families struggling to put food in their mouths. 

Over nearly three hours, we follow The Kinks; Ray Davies (John Dagleish), Dave Davies (George Maguire), Mick Avory (Adam Sopp) and Pete Quaife (Ned Derrington) as they develop from a backing band into world spanning, number one hit-makers. Though a decent amount of time is devoted to Davies' artistic ambitions, what really powers the narrative is his all-consuming desire to get paid fairly. This financial backbone neatly undercuts all the wishy-washy hippy shit, and, though not particularly inspirational, is least sincere.

On paper, Davies' obsession with getting his slice of the pie risks looking like the myopic obsessions of an aging rockstar who's more familiar with dodgy tax arrangements than he is with a plectrum. But Sunny Afternoon dodges this by grounding damn near everything in class politics. The predatory contracts the teenage Kinks signed, granting their manager the rights to their songs in perpetuity, are interpreted as a wider expression of the bourgeois unfairly exploiting the labour of the working class.

This stall is set out in Dead End Street - "We are strictly second class / we don't understand." The song is indignantly sung by Davies' father, taking the primly coiffed managerial team in a tour of the crumbling household. It's a wonderful performance, the lyrics as relevant now as they were when they were written. More is to come as the band engage in legal battles and contract negotiations - one of the most dramatic moments is Davies serving a writ on his manager. Later, on American TV the band react badly to being shaken down by McCarthyites and Bible bashers, angrily and proudly exclaiming that they're "Muswell Hill socialists!"

There is, to put it mildly, a smidge of hypocrisy in an internationally famous rock star on a world tour moaning about how miserable his life is and how everyone has screwed him over. There are moments where Father Ted's acceptance speech at the Golden Clerics springs to mind "And now, we move onto liars..." Lip service is paid to how ridiculous this all is, and the show just about squeaks by as a result. Helping matters is that Dagleish's Ray Davies has charisma to spare, mixing up the troubled genius with jack-the-lad, troubling the fourth wall with an assortment of winks and cheeky struts for our benefit.

Of course, the show would be nothing without the music of The Kinks. Unlike other jukebox musicals where the songs feel crowbarred into place in service of the plot, Davies' lyrics slot eerily well into a continuous narrative. The big singles; You Really Got Me, Till the end of the Day, Lola are appropriately amped up and energetic - jangling garage rock that hasn't dated a minute. But most impressive are numbers like Too Much On My Mind, The Strange Effect and Sitting In My Hotel, in which character development takes place in the songs rather than, as is sadly traditional in jukebox shows, around it.

The only fly in the ointment is an occasionally leaden script. When characters look directly at the audience and say things like "You wouldn't catch John Lennon lying around in his bed with his wife all day!" I can't help but cringe. I don't even know if these qualify as 'in-jokes', but either way they're crushingly unfunny in their clunkiness.

Other than that Sunny Afternoon is politically, performatively and musically top notch - proof that the jukebox musical - the most bastard of West End productions - can be genuinely great. Granted much of this stems from the fact that Ray Davies' autobiographical lyrics are easily assembled into a coherent narrative, but backing it up is that Sunny Afternoon is plainly about something. That sense of purpose puts this head and shoulders above its West End contemporaries - it's a damn good show.


Sunny Afternoon is at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Tickets here.

Thanks to Rebecca Felgate at Official Theatre for the tickets!

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