Disappointing and shallow jukebox musical
This article is from 2016.
Despite having the blessing - and the story - from The Kinks' great songwriter Ray Davis, Sunny Afternoon fulfills the basic function of the jukebox musical without ever troubling the deeper potential of theatre. Following the real life adventures of the band from their origins to their late 1960s heyday, a procession of shallow characters, predictable tensions and cliches presentations of the creative process obscures an interesting tale of sibling rivalry and the pressures of fame.
Fortunately, many of the songs themselves can overcome the weak script: an acapella version of 'Days' exposes its melancholic optimism, and the rocking hits are given a fiery dynamism by the actor-musicians. While the second act struggles to reflect the atmosphere of mid-1960s London through simplistic choreography (1966 is expressed through the cast wondering about the stage waving football scarves), the musical arrangements are both respectful of the originals and given subtle and polished orchestrations, with 'I Go to Sleep' bought to touching life as a long-distance conversation between Ray and his wife Raza.
The dramaturgy of the scenes, however, suggests an incoherent vision. While the chaotic live gig at the end of the first acts conjures the disarray of a band in crisis, the sudden appearance of a British bobby chasing the drummer around like a Benny Hill out-take sinks it into silliness. Dramatic tension is rapidly dissipated: Ray's depression takes a scene to resolve, the tensions between the brothers are sung away, and the sentimental departure of the bassist lasts less than a single song. Apart from Ray, played with nuance by Ryan O'Donnell – who is recognised as a genius, if a bit annoying, by everyone – none of the other characters are given depth or motivation: Dave Davis' wild antics and cross-dressing are written off as youthful exuberance.
The plot does hint at more complicated stories: Ray's sister's death is mentioned in a relatively throwaway manner to explain his intensity, while the tension between the band's success and their working class roots suggest a reason for their internal conflicts. However, the most powerful moments are when Joe Penhill's script is shuffled away and the band launch into the familiar hits.