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Genre: Comedy Drama
Date: February 7 2017
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre
Sunny Afternoon tells the story of The Kinks, one of the most memorable and influential bands of a time when British music essentially took over the world. Since The Kinks delivered plenty of classic hits to stand out during this golden age, one would assume that the music forms the basis for this show. But that's not the case.
Well, in a way it does, because of course The Kinks are known for their music more than anything else; however, Sunny Afternoon recounts their history largely from the perspective of how their lives changed due to their success, or lack thereof at various points. It's less about building a story around their discography, and more about inserting their discography within the story.
We are introduced to Ray Davies (Ryan O'Donnell), Dave Davis (Mark Newham), Pete Quaife (Garmon Rhys) and Mick Avory (Andrew Gallo) in an unusual manner at the very beginning, and we are guided along the way from their initial gigs as The Ravens to the record deal that would change their lives forever, as they became The Kinks and were quickly marketed as something special, yet something very different, which contributed to their initial success. We meet Rasa (Lisa Wright), who rapidly becomes a major part of Ray's life, and we are privy to the band's frequent disagreements and fall-outs with all of those around them, including themselves; their much-hyped tour of America is a disaster on several levels, and each member appears to be struggling to cope with fame in different ways, most notably Ray who becomes homesick and, despite touring the States, just wants to be home with his now-wife Rasa and their child. The show is a case of charting their frequent rises and falls, culminating in a make-or-break decision which essentially determines, at least at that time, whether or not the band would continue and, if so, whether they could reach the heights that they had done previously.
The acting performances stand out more than the singing, simply because there is a greater focus on the drama and, to a lesser extent, the comedy than there is on the music. Ryan O'Donnell does a very good job in conveying the evolution of a young man who begins with a rebellious attitude and is ready to take on the world, critics be damned, only to fall victim to the pitfalls of success and the struggles of life on the road and overseas, eventually becoming a man who has aged long before his years and falls into a near-depression, having realised that he is in a situation which he cannot escape at that point in his life. The remaining band members tend to shine more during the musical renditions (which I will explain shortly), and Rasa does well in portraying a similar character to Ryan's Ray Davies, in that she starts off care-free and just looking for a bit of fun, only to mature at a young age due to the burden of starting a family with the father rarely present, and knowing that they both love each other, but because they are hardly ever together, it's not often that they get a chance to express this emotion to each other.
Many of their big hits are covered, some of them after we see the band practicing different notes and working out the best approach for that particular tune. You Really Got Me, Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Sunny Afternoon, Waterloo Sunset and Lola are here, along with plenty of other songs inserted throughout the show at various points. The main hits are generally performed chronologically, whilst the lesser-known tunes help to support certain pivot points of the storyline. They are performed very well: the background music is excellent, and the vocal performances are authentic and as close to the real thing as you could expect, which demonstrates the talents of the four men playing the Kinks on stage. In particular, Mick Avory has one scene outside of a "proper" Kinks song where he delivers a stunning lengthy drum solo, which give his more outlandish and outspoken character in the show is a real highlight and a rare chance for Avory alone to shine. Elsewhere, the settings are realistic (a recording studio and an American-style stage setting, complete with several flags of Old Glory), and I liked the simple yet effective use of a bridge-like add-on to the stage, since it added an aura to basic scenes, such as the recording manager walking into the garden via the "bridge", with the platform turning green and the lights being dimmed, as if he was walking into a garden awaiting further news about the band. The show has plenty of these little nuances, and they really do help the overall experience.
On the downside, though, the show is very long, coming in at almost three hours. This wouldn't be so bad if the content was drawing one in, but the decision to focus on around 60% drama/comedy and around 40% music means that there are lengthy stretches that are either quiet or where not very much is happening. I can understand why the team would want to keep the audience waiting for the major musical moments, but I felt that the pauses were a bit too long; had around 15-20 minutes been chopped out of the show, it probably wouldn't have made a massive difference. Because the audience is primarily there to hear those classic tunes, I'm not sure if waiting two hours for those songs (close to three for Lola, which comes at the finale) is the best strategy to take. Watching it reminded me of Jersey Boys, which takes a similar path of telling the story of the band and using the music when appropriate, but the Jersey Boys plot was more engaging and less driven on drama than Sunny Afternoon is. That isn't to say that Sunny Afternoon doesn't have gripping moments from a narrative standpoint because it does, but I feel that Jersey Boys did a better job of keeping one's attention in between the songs. It wasn't something that ruined the show by any means, but there were a few moments when I was left wanting a scene to end so that we could move onto the next hit.
(This isn't a criticism of Sunny Afternoon because it was out of their hands, but I have to mention that there were probably a record number of people coughing and occasionally speaking during the quieter scenes, to the point where I was concentrating more on them than the performers on stage, which also probably hindered the viewing experience!)
In the end, if you're a fan of The Kinks, and especially if you're interested in hearing their back-story, then you'll really enjoy Sunny Afternoon. Just note that it is a long show which is built around their story rather than the music and that the big hits are performed fairly infrequently, so it may not be to everybody's tastes. If you do have a real appreciation for their music, though, you'll still have a good time.
Overall Rating: 8/10 - Very Good