It all converged perfectly for writer Joe Penhall, but Sunny Afternoon – a journey through the early life of Ray Davies and the rise to stardom of The Kinks – still proved a challenging tale to tell.
The show is at Brighton Theatre Royal from December 13-31 after a stint at the Mayflower Theatre Southampton from December 6-10.
“Ray Davies was wanting to do something with his songs, and coincidentally I had been thinking about The Kinks brothers as being a great, great story and trying to figure out whether it could be something that works in the theatre,” Joe says. “And then there was a third party, the producer who had been having the same thoughts and met with Ray and put us together.”
To some extent, the story of rise of The Kinks is fascinating because it was typical of so many bands of the time, but also because it was different to all of them.
“In some ways it is the usual story of very young artists being exploited by the music business and then all the internal rifts and eventual breakup, but in the finer details the story is really unique. For a start, they came from a dirt-poor background. They were not just cheeky working-class chaps. They came from real poverty. There were eight kids in a two-bedroom house. Dad was a slaughter man in an abattoir. It was real grit. Ray’s sister had died when he was quite young, and the family started to buckle. He went to live with another sister to spread the load.”
And then there was their first music publisher, an Auschwitz survivor who saw the music business as his redemption: “And it was up to people like Ray to keep cranking out the hits otherwise he would be responsible for the on-going misery of Auschwitz survivors. They were being uniquely manipulated.”
And as Joe says, if you talk to Ray, the band was exploited every step of the way: “But if you talk to the managers, they will say that The Kinks were devious, truculent, manipulative. Ray says everyone exploited them, but you speak to the people that managed them, and they are decent, passionate, nice guys. You have got to try to balance all that. You have got to remember that the way that Ray remembers it all is not necessarily the way that everyone else remembers it. And you don’t want to be disrespectful to that.”
Part of the fascination – and also the complication – is the fact that at the heart of the band were the warring brothers, Ray and Dave. As Joe says, as soon as the Gallaghers emerged with Oasis, it was the Davies brothers he found himself thinking of, as the prototypes.
“But the other thing about The Kinks is that like a lot of bands that were war babies, they were uniquely questing, uniquely looking for an escape from the rationing years, from the war stories of their parents. They were desperate to create a new world. Band like The Who remained uniquely troubled and self-destructive for the same reasons. The Kinks were like that…”
To write the piece, Joe locked himself away with Ray Davies for a couple of years: “I went to his house at Highgate in a darkened room listening to his stories. And then once we started workshopping it, Dave appeared and started to have his say which was the exact opposite to what Ray had said. I think they get together for the odd pint, but they still have all these demarcation issues about who did what during The Kinks, and it is still quite a fractious relationship between them – which made this difficult to write. We had months of squabbling. I was in the middle!”
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