The genius behind The Kinks, Ray Davies, is the closest London has to its own municipal poet laureate: from ‘Waterloo Sunset’ to ‘Lola’, his songs and stories have helped to define this city in the eyes of the world. So it’s almost a surprise that it’s taken so long for those songs to be transformed into a jukebox musical – co-written by Davies and Olivier-winner Joe Penhall – which hits the West End this week. ‘Sunny Afternoon’ follows The Kinks from their scruffy Muswell Hill origins to the summer of 1966, when that catchy title track hit the Number One spot just as England were lifting the World Cup. I sat down with Ray on a brisk, autumnal day in Highgate to chat about the show, and how it feels to transform your own life story into a musical extravaganza.
The story of ‘Sunny Afternoon’ is the story of The Kinks’ early years. What made this tale worth telling?
‘It’s a journey of discovery: a rake’s progress. How the most unlikely group of people ever to become successful did, and how they did it. How we signed a piece of paper, and how that piece of paper came back to haunt us. And through it all is the discovery of oneself and one’s place in the world: all the conflicts within a person who’s suddenly thrown into the whirlpool of fame. Falling in love, in confusion, taking on the corporations, which leads to another piece of paper, which leads to another universe, another continent, to more bits of paper which lead to destruction and meltdown. The story’s been told before, but not quite like this!’
You’ve staged musicals before, most recently ‘Come Dancing’ in 2008. Why did you want to return to these old songs for a new show?
‘I thought it would be interesting to write a show based on one particular song, “Sunny Afternoon”. That song is a journey. It’s someone in their stately home saying “Help me! Help me!” Someone who’s trapped and alone. I was also thinking about my sister Rene who died in 1957, and inspired me to write songs in the first place. Those things were the genesis of it.’
It’s taken almost a decade for the show to come together. Can you tell me about that process?
‘In 2010 we auditioned for someone to write the book, and Joe was just more passionate than the others. Together we knocked it into shape through a series of workshops. We needed to compress time and events, make it all fit together. It’s a stage show, not a documentary.’
Was it important to have the music feel a bit rough around the edges, like the old records?
‘There are elements that do sound like the original recordings, but often it needed to change to fit the story. But we’ve kept it very simple, piano and vocal, a few guitars. It ain’t lush, plush, orchestral stuff.’
How do you feel about the way you’re portrayed in the show?
‘The thing to remember is it’s not me, it’s a character. Otherwise I’d go mad. Madder! The first thing I told John Dalgleish, who plays me, was it’s not an impersonation. But George Maguire who plays my brother Dave has ended up being so like him, it’s scary!’
Your relationship with Dave is famously difficult. Has he or any of the other Kinks seen the show?
‘Mick [Avory, drummer] loved it, he had a good laugh about it. Dave saw it too, and he had a few issues with certain details, so we changed it. But I was proudest when my sisters saw it. Two of my sisters died earlier this year. One of the last things my sister Joyce did was go to see “Sunny Afternoon” in Hampstead, and she told me she was really pleased with it. My sisters were always my biggest critics!’
‘Sunny Afternoon’ is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until May 23 2015.