Sunny Afternoon review – Ray Davies musical is hardly rock'n'roll

This story about the Kinks would have been better presented as a jukebox musical

It's definitely not Birdland. This story of that very English rock star and songwriter Ray Davies of the Kinks owes most to Jersey Boys, a show for people who'd prefer to be watching a tribute band. Like that show, it sends you out on a euphoric high. And like that show, the book fails to thrill and it's the music and songs that do the talking.

Director Edward Hall and designer Miriam Buether work hard to solve the lack of momentum in the story and have fun with the 60s era. They have learned from the successful Chariots of Fire design how to wrap the show around the audience, making us feel more involved. A catwalk extends into the centre of the auditorium and the cast run up and down the side aisles with boundless energy, first as guests at a hunt ball, and subsequently as groupies and Top of the Pops dancers as the 60s starts to swing. At one point, Dave Davies (George Maguire), the younger brother who lived in the shadow of Ray, swings from the chandelier.

But that's about as exciting as it gets. It's perfectly pleasant but it's hardly rock'n'roll. Unlike their contemporaries the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones, the Kinks were not instantly mythologised. It was typical that they were banned from the US for several years, not for hell-raising but for failing to pay their union dues. It's not the legend of the band, but the songs – classics such as Lola, Waterloo Sunset and Dedicated Follower of Fashion – that live on. Which is how it should be. But it makes the biographical approach tricky: I unexpectedly found myself thinking how well these songs – so full of narrative and character and pain – might have been successfully used in a more traditional jukebox musical.

Instead, we get the story of four working-class lads from Muswell Hill who become a band, get screwed over by their management and fall out with each other. It's almost a cliche. The reverential emphasis on Ray – who, despite the best efforts of the talented John Dagleish sometimes comes across as a bit whiny – is to the detriment of the drama. The rivalry between Ray and Dave goes under-explored, the other two members of the band are sidelined, and although Joe Penhall's book uses football and the 1966 World Cup as a hook, it misses a trick in failing to seize the chance to explore the social history and changing mores of 60s Britain. Quite fun but unexpectedly bland too.

• Until May 24. Box office: 020-7722 9301. Venue: Hampstead theatre

Contributor

Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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