Venue: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Production Run: Tues 18 - Sat 22 April 2017

Performance Reviewed: Tue 18 April (Press Night)

Let’s face it; a show based on the songs of The Kinks was always going to have its music down pat. Throw in the customary rags to riches, bedroom to billboard true story and you’d have already had a decent shot at being the next Buddy or Jersey Boys.

Yet Sunny Afternoon doesn’t rest on its laurels of imitation or playing it too safe. No, much like its real-life protagonist, the still-rocking Ray Davies, Sunny Afternoon is a distinctly more complicated and characterful affair, with extra shades of light, dark and humanity interspersed throughout.

Crucially, it is also a lot of fun. Retreading a similar yarn to stories which have come before could easily have given us something stale, yet Sunny takes its time to enjoy the flourishes. This is evident from the off, with the action spilling out onto a stage catwalk that pushes out into the Stalls and characters regularly dashing on and off stage from amongst the audience.

There’s a real flair and confidence in Edward Hall’s direction, too, which, with almost Welles-ian aptitude, invests each scene, number and character interaction with that extra splash of flavour or invention. Rarely does a moment feel wasted or on autopilot, with even the more sombre and perfunctory scenes, such as those between Ray himself (Ryan O’Donnell) and wife Rasa (Lisa Wright), injected with the occasionally fourth-wall breaking or jabs of irreverence.

It’s all a suitably energetic, colourful and charismatic testimony to its Brit band muses, yet also a canny observation on the ephemeral nature of success, the complex, multi-dimensional humanity of its four leads (personality clashes, bandmates feeling ostracised and other internal crises abound aplenty) and, perhaps inevitably, the draconian greed of the music industry. Tried and tested beats, maybe, but ones buoyed by the double whammy of being a true story mixed with a theatrical production striving to be more than just an extended concert performance. 

It helps that the cast of this first UK Tour are fantastic without exception. Ryan O’Donnell does particularly excellent work as the complicated Davies, lending him an almost paradoxical cynicism and innocence at once, and lending plenty of heart and grit to his renditions of some of the Kinks most iconic numbers, including such crowd-pleasing megabits as ‘Lola’, ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and, of course, the titular staple. Crucially, he makes Davies’ moments of disenfranchisement feel authentic and engaging as opposed to just ticking off the steps in his particular heroes journey, with even his more indulgent artiste moments ringing true.

Mark Newnham gives terrific stage presence as the more flamboyant and theatrical of the Davies brothers, Dave. Whether swinging from a chandelier, quite literally smashing up the set with an axe or generally ambling around the stage - usually with a bottle of some description in hand - it’s a spirited and vibrant avatar of the man himself, and Newnham acquits himself equally well with guitar and vocals. Elsewhere, Joseph Richardson and Tomm Coles are awfully, frightfully good sports throughout as Wace and Collins, the foppish young London well-to-dos who served as The Kinks’ first managers. Garmon Rhys is endearing and sells his moments to shine well as fourth wheel of the group, Pete, whilst Robert Took disappears in multi-role form as, amongst others, Davies’ senior and the ultra-American Allen Klein. Lisa Wright helps ensure her Rasa blossoms out of the ‘suffering wife’ archetype into a much more interesting and ultimately supportive figure with an understated, likeable turn.

Sunny Afternoon doesn’t so much rewrite the rulebook when it comes to autobiographical jukebox musicals so much as it is refines it to a high sheen. The music, as mentioned, is its real coup, and come the curtain call, the cast and songs had the audience on their feet and in the palm of their hands. But that isn’t to sell short what Hall, and Book writer Joe Penhall, with help from Ray Davies himself, achieve here, not least of all fashioning a production where the Kinks’ hits feel organic and born from the story rather than the other way around. 

Sunny is a show positively erupting with character, colour and heart; a funny, passionate and engaging filter of a conventional (yet true) story that makes the most of its theatrical format rather than shying away from it - it isn’t difficult to see why it scooped up the coveted ‘Best New Musical’ gong at the 2015 Oliviers. It’s a must-see visit for any fans of Davies’ music and The Kinks, and for everyone else, confidently one of the best jukebox musicals of recent memory.

RATING - ★★★★

Tickets: 01902 429 212  / Official Website: click