Review: Sunny Afternoon, Manchester Opera House

On last Friday’s rainy evening we braced the inclement weather to watch Sunny Afternoon – the Olivier award-winning musical based on the music of The Kinks.

Most of you know I’m a bit of a musical theatre fanatic and have recently returned to the stage myself, so unsurprisingly I was really looking forward to it.

Unusual for a Friday, it was actually the opening night of its national UK tour  at Manchester Opera House and it certainly did not disappoint.

The show charts the band’s turbulent rise to fame from their humble beginnings in Muswell Hill, London and had heavy involvement from The Kinks frontman Ray Davies. Exploring the themes of sibling rivalry, management/ relationship problems and the socio-economic issues of the time, the musical is brimming with many of the band’s favourite hits (over 25) including You Really Got Me, Waterloo Sunset and of course, the title song - Sunny Afternoon.

All about the music

I can safely say it is not like other shows – it was more like going to a gig than watching a musical. Set amongst the sex, drugs and rock and roll of the Swinging Sixties, Sunny Afternoon provided all three in abundance.

The music speaks for itself, drug and alcohol use are explored primarily through the substance abuse of lead guitarist Dave Davies (played by Mark Newnhan) and the sex comes in the form of the miniskirt-clad GoGo dancers. Though the on-stage charisma of lead singer Ray Davies (played by Ryan O'Donnell) also gets a thoroughly deserved mention in this regard.

From Dave’s life changing addition of the power chord  thanks to a decimated amplifier to You Really Got Me (each set of chords getting increasingly amplified in response to enthusiastic shouts of “louder” from the audience), to the constant feeling of being in the throngs of a crowd at a concert, this show really is all about the music. And it shouldn’t be any other way.

Everyone’s in the band

Strong vocals and appropriate rock star attitude aside, the cast playing members of The Kinks all also have to play their own relevant instruments, which they did extremely proficiently. Consistent on drums was Andrew Gallo playing Mick Avory, conquering the bassline was Garmon Rhys playing Peter Quaife and excellent rhythm guitar and lead vocals came from Donnell's  incarnation of Ray Davies . But the real (guitar) hero was Newnham's Dave Davies who’s mastered the art of exceptional lead guitar whilst at the same time making sure his character appeared appropriately under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Sensational.

Let us not forget the traditional “orchestra” for this musical – one keyboard player and guitarist on stage throughout to provide cover at strategic points during the show, as well as contribute to the overall richness of the sound. They did a sterling job, as did Lisa Wright as Rasa (Ray’s girlfriend-turned-wife) .

But the instrumental participation did not stop there. At some point during the musical, I’m pretty sure almost every member of the 20-strong cast had their hands on an instrument at one point, whether it was the comically choreographed trombone playing from “posh” managers Larry Page and Grenville Collins, to strumming a washing board or banging a metal bin Stomp-style, they fully embraced the spirit of the band and their music.

Setting the scene

The majority of scenes (unsurprisingly) take place in various music studios or concert halls, so the basic set was three walls covered in amplifiers and speakers (add stars and stripes for US-based scenes) with props and set to resemble hotel rooms, bedrooms and more mundane locations moved in on automatic scenery wagons.

There was also a catwalk apron jutting out part way into the audience. I had mixed feelings about its effectiveness –  it worked for some of the choreography and “concert” scenes but at other times it felt slightly forced, like it was being used just because it was there rather than being needed for the overall effectiveness of the set.  

The costumes were absolutely fabulous and have turned me into a dedicated follower of sixties fashion.  I wanted to add several of the more vintage items to my wardrobe – though I’d better get working on my squats if I want to wear the miniskirts.

Standout songs

The real standout musical numbers for me include the effective setting of London’s sixties music scene in Denmark Street and the extravagance, fun and frivolity of Dedicated Follower of Fashion. But my absolute favourite (and favourite The Kinks song) was the finale – Lola.

Now I was starting to become slightly concerned as we neared the end of the show and there was no sign of this song. Whilst I was a bit disappointed there was no scene set in a club down in Old Soho, where you drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola, it was definitely the perfect crowd-pleasing finale song and had every member of the mostly grey-haired audience up on their feet reliving their youth; our transformation from theatre goers to gig attendees complete.

Adaptable for amateur productions?

Being in musicals myself, I always watch them with a hint of my “professional” amateur (that’s an oxymoron) theatre head on, working out how it could be staged and who could play the principal roles. So is Sunny Afternoon suitable for amateur theatre?

Well, I know a lot of extremely talented people in Manchester’s amateur theatre world and whilst a few who are also talented musicians would certainly fit the bill, I feel this is one way in which it may be a struggle. Sure, you could certainly teach a couple of members of the chorus to be able to produce some half-decent basic notes on a trombone, but the musicality required of the band members would certainly be a challenge in this regard. That said, we always love a challenge and proving people wrong in am dram, so watch this space when the rights are released.

In summary, a new favourite musical of mine and a thoroughly enjoyable, high-octane night out. Go see it!

Sunny Afternoon is playing at Manchester Opera House until 27 August 2016, touring nationally until 11 March 2017.


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