A Sunny Afternoon in London: The Kinks, The Musical
“The Kinks at the Harold Pinter Theatre, tonight. What time?” my husband asked. I felt faint, even sitting down, for just a second: I was dreaming. Then I remembered — oh yes. The Kinks, the musical. We were celebrating a new year with a new musical, about which, I must admit, I’d been highly skeptical when I bought the tickets a few months ago.
The Kinks, the musical — Sunny Afternoon — had been getting great reviews in London, but still…. A musical, featuring the spectacular mid-1960s early hits of the Kinks, but not being performed by Ray, Dave, Pete and Mick. To be sure, Ray Davies wrote the original story for the show, and though I’ve read his autobiographies, as well as Dave’s, I wondered how that story could possibly play out over the course of two brief hours, with an interval. Dave Davies had posted photographs of himself beaming at the opening night of Sunny Afternoon back in October 2014. If Ray wrote it, and Dave liked it, that settled it for me: worth seeing.
I met the Kinks early in college on a turntable, via “Waterloo Sunset,” and have rejoiced in their riffs,
and wept over the nostalgia and downright heartbreak in their lyrics, ever since. Talk about a band capable of claiming, and celebrating, the fact that they weren’t like everybody else: truer words couldn’t be spoken. The cliché of “wielding” a guitar, calling it an “axe,” sprang alive under the hands of the teenaged Dave. Ray’s life of the mind, stunningly rich — and overwhelming to him, even as he kept on writing songs of vast range in their variety and intensity — and his surprisingly gentle voice classed him as remarkable at the time, and they still do. Along with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Who and so many more English-based bands, the Kinks joined the “British invasion” of America — but suffered a four-year touring ban at the very moment of said invasion, something that helped them remain for decades after thought of as a particularly, even quintessentially, English band. Fair enough, in a way. A deep love for the 19th and early 20th-century English vaudeville and music-halls, for local pubs and village greens, for royal processions, for London’s railway stations and bridges, for teatime and country life and things deeply, Dickensianly Great British shape and flow from every album the Kinks ever released, from their start in 1963 until the band broke up in 1996.
The story of the two brothers from Muswell Hill, their supportive family of parents and older sisters, and their early start as musicians with school friend Pete Quaife is a familiar one to any fan of the past fifty years of music in England. It is where, appropriately, Sunny Afternoon begins. Against a backdrop of speakers on an impossibly small stage (of which every single inch, as well as runways and aisles, are used by the performers), sometime in late 1962 or early 1963, the lads back a crooner at a posh party — until Dave (the excellent George Maguire) gets bored. Only fifteen, Dave snags another drink, winds up his guitar, and lets fly with something completely different. In a 1999 interview, Dave recalled these early gigs, and Sunny Afternoon’s opening scene tracks his words perfectly: “A lot of them loved it — ‘Oh, jolly good, that’s splendid!’ — dancing away in their £500 suits….It was like that Monty Python sketch, The Upper-Class Twits.”
When the brothers get home, they begin to experiment with a riff of Dave’s. The audience laughed and clapped, right away. We all knew it. You know it too. Dave and Ray want it faster, and louder. Finally, Dave — who is as vital and sparkling as his brother is careful and care-full, in this show — slices into his amp. The audience, knowing just what was coming, put down their drinks and raised cautionary hands toward the ears, smiling. There it is: the furry distortion; the level that goes up to eleven times eleven, ripping and tearing open the song that would become “You Really Got Me.”
The trajectory the young men took, so very quickly, to stardom plays out against their home life — so early broken — featuring loving parents proud of their music, and big sisters eager to watch them succeed. I’ve never seen swifter costume changes than those that permit the Davies sisters to shift into groupies, air hostesses, American tour representatives, waitresses, dancers — all professionally and seamlessly done. The quick transitions from role to role accentuate how stratospherically fast things began to move for the band of boys formerly known as the Ravens.
With upper-class, self-described Tory managers Robert Wace (Dominic Tighe) and Grenville Collins (Tam Williams), the Kinks book studio time and at first make records their label, Pye, doesn’t like. Ray (a moving, intense and often funny John Dagleish) resists in measured style, while Dave lashes out, often letting his guitar speak for him, and Pete (played quietly and sadly by Ned Derrington) remains intrepidly pure and true to what he sees as the band’s vision. Pete is the one who misses home enough to, briefly, leave the band because he’s homesick. Ray, as the frontman, is just as homesick, but has no such option. Despite his young family back in London, he’s presented with a typewriter on which to instantly crank out more hits, and airline tickets for a world tour.
The disaster of their American tour of 1965 is set down, in Sunny Afternoon, to money matters. After all their managers and publishers have had a cut, the Kinks are expected to pay dues to every applicable American union (and some that aren’t even remotely applicable, just extortionate). America is ironically, if also humorously, depicted in Sunny Afternoon. A representative from a musician’s union demands fees because the Kinks, English musicians, are coming to America to play African-American blues — as, surely, were most of the bands in the British Invasion. Big Bill Broonzy is something of a guiding spirit for Ray in the musical; he is drawn to his soon-to-be wife Rasa (Lillie Flynn) because she, a Sheffield convent schoolgirl of Lithuanian roots, knows Broonzy and his music. A limo driver, who claims to be a friend of Elvis’s, waves a .357 Magnum and then shoots it to scare off groupies, terrifying the band in the back seat to bits. Unavoidably, one thinks of Ray living in New Orleans in the mid-2000s, and being shot when he tried to stop a thief — an incident about which he has since spoken without hard feelings (on his 2010 American tour, Ray’s exit music after his last encore was Fats Domino’s 1960 classic, “Walking To New Orleans.”)
Their first managers leave the band to return to their “own class” (via a lovely a capella “Thank You For The Days”), and the Kinks go back home to London themselves to regroup. “Dave the Rave,” looking divine in women’s clothing, drinking hard, and utterly wild (at one point he got a loud laugh with the exclamation that Keith Richards is just too normal and tame) literally swings from chandeliers, but just wants a family and home like Ray’s. Ray, suffering terribly from depression, cannot see any direction but downwards, even as he keeps on managing to write songs the world waits for hungrily. Out of the sadness, back home again, comes “Waterloo Sunset.” As they begin to shape it, with the newly returned Pete’s contributions praised, and everyone supporting everyone else, Ray comments that if this one doesn’t make you cry, you’re not hearing the words — or the tune.
Sunny Afternoon closes with a massive jump in time and the Kinks, triumphantly in America once more, playing a sold-out Madison Square Garden in 1981. This lets the evening end with their best-known song, “Lola.” Yet the musical really ends in 1966, amidst the problematic but soaring success wrapped up in its title song. After the Champagne splashed from tables and the actors danced down the aisles with us, “Sunny Afternoon” remained the presiding genius of the night. Audience members, some in their 70s and in vintage clothes like Dave’s fab stage kit (which in the show inspire “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”), some teenaged just as the Kinks were back in 1963, played air guitar and jumped around in the lobby under posters of past productions of bleak Harold Pinter plays. The Kinks and Harold Pinter: now this, I thought, is England. On a rainy, chilly night in Leicester Square, among the Christmas lights and midnight carousel rides, a paradoxical spirit of nostalgic celebration seemed to have spread out from the theater into the streets of London. Or, perhaps, it’s just the other way around: those streets of London, via the Kinks and their art, had run into the theater and carried us all back, north and up to the old music throughfare of Denmark Street, and on to Denmark Terrace, Fortis Green, N2 9HG, on a walk through time. Dear Davies brothers, Pete, and Mick, thank you for the days — all day and nighttime yours.
from author’s collection
Sunny Afternoon is at the Harold Pinter Theatre through 23 May 2015. You should go. Sing along; it’s encouraged, and I’ll bet you know all the words. If you can’t make the London production, hope that the show travels soon to a place nearer you. Soundtrack, available now, was recorded at Konk Studios, and produced by Ray Davies.