On the face of it, Sunny Afternoon would appear to be a standard jukebox musical: it recounts the band’s formative years in Muswell Hill, their hard-won success, their garlanded golden period and their writ-entangled downfall, but rather than slavishly stick to the chronology of it all, the Joe Penhall’s book nimbly pulls in out-of-period songs, sometimes allowing them just a line or two, or chorus, whatever’s relevant to the scene, without forcing a song that is so clearly about one thing to describe another – which, for my money, is one of the biggest flaws with the jukebox musical format. It’s the musical theatre equivalent of jamming a square peg in a round hole; listening to a tender ballad between, say, mother and son because the first verse fits so well, but then watching the performers mumble through the second verse because the lyric – clearly about romantic love – gets a bit sexy.
Still, such uneasy tensions are avoided here. So too is the tendency to drown the songs in reverb and syrupy strings. Arrangements are new –sometimes, in the case of Dead End Street, which is performed by Ray and Dave’s mum and dad as a raucous, throbbing skiffle, wildly so – but we’re in the same sonic ballpark. The instrumentation – provided by all the members of this superbly talented cast, has the same vocabulary, if not the same voice. Perhaps the biggest departure comes the two-or-three times suits Dominic Tighe and Tam Williams, Robert Wace and Grenville Collins, the band’s managers, whip out trombones and give proceedings a little New Orleans-style rasp – this doesn’t trample on Ray’s songs, of course, it just gives all that rock a little more roll.
It’s probably not the acting that lifts Sunny Afternoon so easily past its competitors, which is, shall we say, a little functional. John Dagleish and George Maguire are perfectly decent as Ray and Dave “the Rave” Davies, but the hang up Dave has over the death of his older sister is probably a touch laboured. No, the script is at its strongest as it wrings out the Davies’ brothers journey from best-of-friends-brothers to spotlighted siblings who squabble like cats in a bag. But there’s little revelation here. Moments like when the schoolboy Dave Davies invents guitar distortion by slashing his amp with a razorblade and the Kinks get booted out of the US for being socialists who refuse to pay their union dues are nicely handled, but I’m not sure whether many a new insight is made. Plus, the action conveniently ends – a little too conveniently, seeing as Ray Davies is listed as coming up with original story – sometime in the early ‘70s, before Ray got all weird and controlling, so there’s an air of self-promotion to the tale.
Still, that’s not what Sunny Afternoon is about. It’s a Sixties daydream – one that doesn’t shirk the contradictions of the decade: it rolls over blandishments often trotted out about the decade’s new class and gender equality – but it’s a daydream nonetheless, full of colourful characters, a Austin Powers-style choreography. It’s all just set to one of the most amazing soundtracks imaginable.
And the songs, well, the songs are fantastic.
The body of work The Kinks knocked out from the mid-60s to the mid-70s is simply phenomenal. Songs like All the Day and All of the Night have drive and groove, but there’s a subtlety to the lyrics that most bands – and most musicals – never get anywhere close to. And that’s not simply down to the biting wit of songs like Dedicated Follower of Fashion, but also in their humanity. Take A Well Respected Man, here the song is cooed at Wrace and Collins who, when we meet them in the first act, are two money-grabbing toffs, each greedily vying for a portion of the band’s money. There’s little love lost, yet, as time goes on, their relationship with Ray, Dave, Pete and Mick deepens until they want to leave and Ray pleads with them to stay: “We want you as our managers,” he begs them, practically in tears. It’s a conciliatory dynamic present in the original lyric, the snarl of which, when you look at, is so self-consciously empty: “Cause he gets up in the morning, and he goes to work at nine | And he comes back home at five-thirty, gets the same train every time.” Well, the older Ray might reflect once his teenage angst subsides, what’s so wrong in that?
It would be overstating it say that the humour in Penhall’s book matches Davies’, though he does deftly weave in smug in-jokes about the implausibility of knighting ageing rock stars and Paul McCartney’s output with Wings. What really works with the book though are those times where Penhall matches historical context with a big musical number, like with Sunny Afternoon. The lilting satirical ditty topped the charts in the summer of 1966, and his here reimagined on the afternoon England win the World Cup. It’s a simple idea, but with its lightness of touch, its layering of the right scene with the right song, shows Penhall’s sensitive control of the material.
Of course, he’s equally happy to disband with the dramatic pretence and just play it straight, as with the show’s final number, Waterloo Sunset. Presented just as Wrace and Collins part company with the band, the song is sung simply in the recording studio, no frills, no layered meanings. Still, when you have what legendary US critic Robert Christgau once called “The most beautiful song in the English language,” anything else is just gilding the lily.