Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty..."

“Well, I do feel that even beats Henry IV Part One…”

Ah, Hampstead (Theatre). Not only would such a critique be pretty unthinkable anywhere else.

Why, even unlikelier was its delivery as an exhilarated audience dusted red-white-and-blue ticker-tape from their sleeves and tottered out in a daze through auditorium doors.

Behind them echoed the last clanging chords from a finale greeted not by polite applause while settled in seats, but tottering to feet and rocking and jiving and whooping along in a feelgood evening ending to “Sunny Afternoon”.

That is, the newly-opened (and soon West End-shifting?) musical based on the songs of the Kinks, approved and overseen by often-crotchety Ray Davies and with a script by credible veteran Joe Penhall – a seeming safe pair of hands compared to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Queen-ly collaborator Ben Elton.

The Shakespeare comparison may, however, be a little too much of a stretch – even if the raw emotions of such sibling rivalry between Ray and Dave Davies might well have offered material enough for intense Jacobean tragedy.

There seems plenty to carp about, however, about this script.

Rave reviews have been won, from the Observer to the Mail, the Independent to the Express. And, yes, it is a real feelgood evening – as suggested by so many leaping aloft for the final scenes, to not only sing but swivel along.

This is a show that sounds great – well, how couldn’t it, being based on the music of the Kinks? And not only the hits, but later album tracks stealthily snuck in such as even the obscure first verse of "Maximum Consumption" when discussing mere meals? But all are performed with mighty power and finesse, by a squad-rotating band ("Ray's dad" leads a bravura "Dead End Street" before sitting down in the background and subtly finger-picking...)

That lesser-known one works well enough as a singalong-ish track performed showtune-style, but what struck this viewer – and keen Kinksian geek – was how many other non–hits got factored in on-stage.

Of course playgoers will expect – and duly receive and appreciate  – such obvious classics as "You Really Got Me", "Tired Of Waiting For You", "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion" and/or "Waterloo Sunset".

Yet a production seemingly so predicated on celebrating the London of the Swinging (mid-)Sixties not only made canny characterful use of later songs readjusted to earlier period scenes.

Well, it recognised just how ruefully judgmental of the Sixties were the Kinks’ songs of the Seventies.

The bitter LP Lola Versus Powerman… came out in 1970, only a few months after perennial favourite – if subversive – single “Lola” reached number two and made them appear more relevant than they had for several years.

That album failed to chart and even now has less of an approving hipster reputation than 1968’s (admittedly also-excellent) Village Green Preservation Society.

And yet its songs, with their strangely-specific finger-pointing over contracts or affectedly-blasé comments on how to get on Top Of The Pops, seem somehow topical while made central to this latest production.

And yet, despite replicating such ingenious music so viscerally well, one of the main problems of "Sunny Afternoon" at Hampstead Theatre is the actor playing Ray Davies.

Not that John Dagleish is no good. Quite the contrary – he is excellent, both singing and strumming. He just never convinces as, well, Ray Davies. More like the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner – at least, back in his Sixties-obsessed days, rather than with the Fifties quiff he currently sports.

Flat-capped and chippy is not sufficient to capture that character, mind, and the storyline the audience is invited to accept – that Ray is an insightful idealist, with a disturbing upbringing yet with ingenious insights always frustratedly bubbling under – seldom comes across when speaking, only ever when singing. Thanks to those ever-expressive songs themselves.

Why, at one point the poor actor playing Dave – otherwise raucously unrestrainedly – is forced to intone the words: “It used to be about the music…”

Presumably we should all feel grateful he never felt compelled to add something along the lines of: “Why don’t we put on the show right here?”

(Another potential cause for discomfort is the caricaturish Jewish agent they attract [though the same performer later does pummelling drumming duties], his R-rolling rhoticisms recalling to mind Ray’s exaggerated impression at the end of “Top Of The Pops” or else the opening lyric of the otherwise-brilliantly-witty “When I Turn Off The Living-Room Light”.)

George Maguire as Dave Davies, by contrast, completely convinces as that real-life, ever-(/too-)sincere figure, capturing that half-unhinged yet technically-brilliant personality.

The whole play could do better to explore further, and not only glancingly or belatedly, that love-hate relationship between those two brothers (albeit explored better already by Ray’s own 1966 song ‘Two Sisters’…)

Charismatically as Dave comes across, there feel obvious indications this is a Ray-ruled creation – exemplified by showing their first “You Really Got Me” recording with Ray not Dave shredding the amp with a knitting-needle for importantly-coarser effect. Despite all other reports to the contrary.

Fair enough, perhaps.

This is Ray’s show, and a good deal better than many musicals merely constructed around a big band’s hits.

For all the obvious Sixties stuff, most affecting are the Seventies reworkings – such as "Sitting In My Hotel" for Ray’s lonely touring duties, or "This  Time Tomorrow" for Ray’s lonely loneliness duties, or "The Money-Go-Round" for Ray’s lonely cash-counting fretting….

What the show does get across well is not merely how Ray was the brains of the band – and, yes, how emphatically this Ray Davies-promoted production makes just that point – but also how younger bro Dave could justly claim to be the heart, the soul and the, er, groin of the group.

Ray’s first wife, his teenage bride Rasa, plays a key part here – met at a gig in Bradford, her Yorkshire accent played for laughs while strikingly set alongside her parents’ expounded history fleeing Lithuania and the Nazis not that long beforehand.

Her most memorable contribution, however, approaches the end as the band haltingly work through a new R. D. Davies creation that would turn out to be 1967’s – hey, all-time’s – finest single, “Waterloo Sunset”.

“Ah, it makes me cry!”, Rasa cries, on hearing just the first few bars.

“Ah, it makes me cringe,” might think a few who hear such a cheesily-delivered riposte.

And then, and yet … the song itself starts. The bassline saunters down. The guitar lick kicks in.

And then, those lyrics. Allied with, well, that melody.

No matter the circumstances, such a song can never fail.

Ah, it makes me cry.

In a grand way, of course. Whether on-stage or on record, all day and all of the night.

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