REVIEW: Sunny Afternoon (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until December 31)

Sunny Afternoon. Photo: Kevin Cummins
Sunny Afternoon. Photo: Kevin Cummins

It might not be that seasonal, but it’s definitely turned Kinky at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, until the end of 2016.

While crooners dream of a White Christmas, audiences can warm themselves with the delights of a Sunny Afternoon – a terrific touring version of the award-winning West End production based on the story and music of The Kinks.

The sharply written, superbly produced and exceptionally acted show is a must for all fans of the Ray Davies pop band, but you don’t have to be a dedicated follower of The Kinks to appreciate the story of young Londoners having ambitious dreams in the Swinging Sixties, the rocky road to and beyond success, and the influential and prosaic songs.

This is more than a jukebox musical churning out the hits – this is well-constructed narrative (with an original story by Ray Davies and book by Joe Penhall) that weaves a pleasing number of the group’s songs into it, sometimes as concert performances or recordings, sometimes as surprisingly well-placed moments propelling the drama forwards.

In some ways the story of the lads from Muswell Hill and the harsh reality of their rise to the showbiz spotlight is utterly unlikely as the basis for a musical. But Sunny Afternoon isn’t afraid to tell it as it was, including the onstage rows between Ray and his wild younger brother Dave, the manipulation of the men from the music industry and the failure to conquer America at the right time because of arguments with the unions.

For every dark cloud there are also moments of unbridled joy, with the actors playing their own instruments – even the effective supporting cast reaching for trombones, guitars, ukuleles and melodicas with gleeful enthusiasm. It is easy to be captivated by the fun and hard not be moved by the more intimate and tender emotional episodes that result.

As the four band members this production has managed to gather actors of quality, with some resembling the musicians they play, and others getting to the heart of their characters with determined skill. Ryan O’Donnell effortlessly captures the world-weariness and satirical bite of Ray Davies and his bardic genius; Garmon Rhys as bass player Pete Quaife and Andrew Gallo as drummer Mick Avory are excellent as the working class boys who add their own personalities to the volatile mix of the group; and Lancing’s Mark Newnham is terrific as the unpredictable Dave Davies, who seemed to enjoy the ups and downs of a rock and roll lifestyle every evening.

Lisa Wright is touching as Ray’s first wife, not only left holding the baby on numerous occasions, but also struggling to come to terms with her husband’s mood swings, drinking binges and uncertainties about his artistic muse. Also strong are Tomm Coles and Joseph Richardson as the band’s managers and Robert Took doubling as Mr Davies and Allen Klein. However, the ensemble gels brilliantly and there’s not a single weak link.

Director Edward Hall and choreographer Adam Cooper play their own parts in giving this production such enviable energy and depth, while Miriam Buether’s wall to wall speakers set is a work of art.

And of course the hits come thick and fast: from the powerful You Really Got Me, A Well Respected Man, Dedicated Follower of Fashion, and All Day and all of the Night to the sheer beauty of Waterloo Sunset and a spine-chilling acapella version of Days. Needless to say everyone is up on their feet by the end of the evening when Lola makes a late appearance.

Any disappointment at the lack of traditional pantomime at the Theatre Royal is swiftly blasted away by this five star production, which guarantees You Just Can’t Go to Sleep and ensures that Christmas will Look a Little on the Sunny Side.