In July 1966 the England football team was about to pull off the impossible and London was fast becoming the hip, groovy and happening place to be.
High in the charts was The Kinks, with their second hit, Sunny Afternoon. This popular four-piece pop combo, fronted by Ray Davies and his younger brother Dave, hailed from North London, and were to become one of the most influential rock groups of all time.
Fast forward almost 50 years and you don’t have to be a Dedicated Follower of Fashion to realise that Sunny Afternoon is back and riding high.
In 2014 Ray’s searingly honest musical slipped onto the genteel stage of Hampstead Theatre, blasted out its silver-haired audience, and won a whole new set of fans, before transferring to the West End, becoming a major hit and winning four Oliviers.
England didn’t make the cut at this year’s World Cup but Sunny Afternoon is set for continued success with a national tour playing in Milton Keynes Theatre from next week (August 30) and Aylesbury Waterside Theatre from September 27.
The cast were putting the finishing touches to the show at rehearsal studios on The Isle of Dogs in East London when I caught up with them.
I watched key cast members Ryan O’Donnell, playing Ray Davies, Mark Newnham, as brother Dave, Garmon Rhys as bassist Pete Quaife and Andrew Gallo playing Kinks’ drummer Mick Avory, going through their paces, including a rousing rendition of Sunny Afternoon before sitting down with them for a chat.
Tousle-haired Ryan, a former member of the Jethro Tull entourage, has already appeared in the 1960’s Who musical, Quadrophenia. He had to pass muster with The Kinks’ frontman Ray before bagging the part.
“I remember meeting Ray backstage once, after I’d got the part, and he said ‘Hi, nice to meet you’. He nodded his head and said: ‘So, you’re doing this are you? Ah’. And we shook hands and that was it, “said Ryan.
“Ray is very hands on. He comes to watch it quite a lot and he’s very supportive. He comes to all the auditions and is involved in casting.
“When you go into the final round of auditions there is this quiet man sitting at the back with a steely glare, passing judgement - which is pretty intimidating.
“I didn’t know much about The Kinks before I saw the show a couple of years ago, but obviously I knew the songs. They’re so iconic. But you don’t realise how many they wrote. It can be overwhelming for audiences. Just one great song after another. It’s a helluva show.”
Garmon, who has recently played Agatha Christie’s young detective, Tommy, and Wilfred Owen in the WWI drama, Regeneration at Northampton, here plays disillusioned guitarist Quaife, who suffers a crisis of confidence at the peak of the band’s success.
“My favourite song in the show is You Really Got Me,” he said, “Because it’s the first time you get to see the band play together as a four-piece properly, when they’re on Top of the Pops and you get a real buzz when you hear those first chords. It’s amazing.”
“I like Set Me Free, which is a pretty sexy tune, with all the trippy vocal harmonies and guitar riffs,” added Ryan.
“I have a constant battle with our music director, in songs like Sunny Afternoon. He comes up to me and says: ‘You are singing it like Ray but could you sing it a bit nicer? A bit brighter? It is supposed to be a happy moment in the show!’
“I say that it’s a lazy afternoon but he says: ‘Yeah, but it’s not a lazy moment in the show!’”
Garmon says that Britain can’t get enough of the 1960s. “It was a pioneering era for culture and fashion, especially British music and apparel.
“It was where a lot of modern fashions were started. Our wardrobe department have had it easy because the clothes and shoes, like the Chelsea Boots, are still in fashion.
“And our audiences are not all in their 60s. We have kids of all ages because everyone loves 1960’s music.”
“The reason Sunny Afternoon has been so successful is that audiences don’t just come to hear amazing songs that they remember but there are a lot of familiar themes - money, homesickness, the class struggle.”
“A lot of people come up to me,” said Ryan, “who were around at that time and didn’t know the full story. This has a strong narrative, is a fascinating play, as well as a great musical.”
Andrew Gallo, who came to MKT with Saturday Night Fever, has an impressive drum solo in Sunny Afternoon which earns the admiration of everyone.
“I was originally up for Pete, Mick and their manager. I had five drum songs to learn plus their scenes and, just in case, another song. I hadn’t touched the drums for a year so I booked myself into a studio and drummed for about four hours solid until I gave myself blisters!”
He first heard The Kinks at the age of 12 after discovering a cache of old cassette tapes while sitting with mates in a neighbour’s attic. “We just played them on a loop. They were amazing”.
Mark, who plays wild Dave, swilling fizz, swinging from a chandelier, bedding the birds and wearing a frock or two, used to play The Kinks songs when he was in a band in Brighton.
“I knew that Ray and Dave had a tempestuous relationship. Their songs are so iconic. It was so magical the way Ray wrote about stuff. He came up with some incredible lyrics. I haven’t stopped listening to The Kinks since I got the job.
“Dave is a real gift to play. He’s so flamboyant and has such a verve for life. And the script is fantastic. You could take the songs out and still have an incredible play.
“I auditioned in front of Ray, which was interesting. I had already auditioned for Pete and Dave. I did my Pete stuff first and had my fringe over one way and then, when I did my Dave audition, I said: “Do you mind if I manipulate my fringe?’ which made Ray laugh.
“I moved it into a centre parting and he said: ‘Oh yeah, you’re playing a different character’. ‘Yeah, I’m playing your little brother!’ and again I made him laugh.”
Sunny Afternoon plays at Milton Keynes Theatre August 30-September 3 and Aylesbury Waterside, September 27-October 1. To book visit www.atgtickets.co.uk/miltonkeynes or www.atgtickets.co.uk/aylesbury,