Regional theatre review: Sunny Afternoon

Date Posted: 06/09/2016

Rachel Bailey stopped in at Milton Keynes Theatre to see if the regional touring production of Sunny Afternoon is living up to its sterling West End reputation.

The climactic end of Sunny Afternoon left me on the kind of high I’ve only ever experienced at music festivals. I had the same exhilaration that comes from stomping your feet and singing your heart out amidst a crowd of strangers who are united by the absolute thrill of raw live music.

I should admit that for the best part of two and half hours, I had indeed been stomping my feet and singing my heart out. I would have apologised to the people sat around me, but they were all doing it, too. No one was sitting nicely, and everyone was on their feet by the end.

I’ve never seen a rock musical in the theatre before. I’m a Hairspray kind of girl, and I had my doubts about this one. In my opinion, watching and yelling hoarsely to rock music is something more suited to a festival in a grassy field rather than at a musical at Milton Keynes Theatre.

But how wrong I was.

Pictured: Ryan O'Donnell (Ray Davies), Mark Newnham (Dave Davies), Andrew Gallo (Mick Avory) and Garmon Rhys (Pete Quaife). (Photocredit: Kevin Cummins).

The tour of Sunny Afternoon opened in Manchester last month, and it’s touring UK venues until next May. If you’re not familiar with it (and how can you not be, following the critical acclaim the West End run has attracted?), Sunny Afternoon is a musical about the rock band The Kinks.

It’s about the highs and lows of their musical career; their relationships with each other; their ban from America; their fight to retain their earnings. It’s about family and sibling rivalry and morals and what constitutes a job well done. 

My friends were right when they said I’d know every song. Prior to entering the theatre I didn’t even think I could name one song by The Kinks. I didn’t even think I liked rock music, but I left feeling like a die-hard fan. My partner Ben said it was the best musical he’d ever seen – and that’s really something, so hard is he to please when it comes to musical theatre.

Looking around, I could see that much of the audience was made up of the over-50s, all of whom were clapping and cheering for the action on stage. I’d certainly recommend this musical for groups who experienced or take an interest in the sixties.

Here are my main observations about Sunny Afternoon. This musical is loud. And I mean LOUD, in capitals. I don’t know that I’ve ever been exposed to these kind of volume levels in a theatre before, and just a few guitar chords from character Dave Davis, played by Mark Newnham, were intense enough to make me squeak a little in fear.

Not that this is necessarily a criticism – I’m just advising that audiences come prepared for an onslaught of guitar squeals, amp squawks, and drum bashing.

Sunny Afternoon UK tour

Pictured: Ryan O'Donnell (Ray Davies), Mark Newnham (Dave Davies), Andrew Gallo (Mick Avory) and Garmon Rhys (Pete Quaife). (Photo credit: Kevin Cummins).

Sunny Afternoon is very much about the music – specifically rock music. Less than five minutes into the production the audience is already reminded that this is not a show for wimps. It is not twee or romantic or easy. It is gritty and honest. It is a hard-graft of rock ’n’ roll, from start to finish.

The Sunny Afternoon vocals are not emotionally-strung like those in a musical like Les Miserables. I wouldn’t say that there is one strong lead character either, despite much of the story revolving around the moral dilemmas faced by lead singer Ray Davis, who was played by Ryan O’Donnell.

O’Donnell is brilliant, by the way – he plays the moody, self-aware, conflicted Davis down to a T. And Davis just wants to make good music. Hits like You Really Got Me, Waterloo Sunset and Lola are superbly executed, as are some of the lesser known Kinks’ records.

All the musical instruments are played live on stage, and there is no hidden orchestra. Even the sound technicians are in sight. This appears to be a real band, on a real rostrum, and it adds to the festival feeling. Watch out for the drum solo by Mick the drummer (played by Andrew Gallo). This was one of the highlights for me, it’s so impressive.

Ryan O'Donnell (Ray Davies)

Pictured: Ryan O'Donnell (Ray Davies). (Photo credit: Kevin Cummins).

Sunny Afternoon is funny, too. Witty one liners, cleverly scripted conversations between The Kinks and their managers and jibes at the expenses of record labels are all present, lightening the mood of what could have been a pretty bleak story.

My favourite bit overall? The character of Dave Davis. From donning a lady’s evening dress to swinging manically from a chandelier, Newnham's presentation of an out-of-control rock star is entertaining and insightful from beginning to end.

Criticism? I honestly don’t have any. I haven’t seen another rock musical yet – perhaps when I do I’ll have some sort of comparison. All I can say is that this musical ‘really got me going’, and I can guarantee that it will get you going, too.

Group travel organisers can visit the Sunny Afternoon website to book tickets for either the regional tour, or the Harold Pinter theatre, where the musical will end its West End run on 29th October.

Lead image: Mark Newnham as Dave Davies. (Photo credit: Kevin Cummins).

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