At the end of March, Hampstead Theatre held its Page to Stage Festival and – unsurprisingly – Sunny Afternoon was a feature. Director Ed Hall & writer Joe Penhall were joined by the author Kate Mosse to discuss the journey from concept to hit West End musical (at that point Olivier-nominated, now multiple Olivier-winning).
Joe started in 1995 by sending Ray a note about a potential collaboration – to which he received a reply in 2009! Ed’s involvement began once they’d got through a couple of scripts & workshops, moving it to the Hampstead for its limited season last year. It was interesting to hear the thought processes & elements that have to come together when a new musical is being developed; as well as the material itself needing to be able to hold its own, there are other contributors to consider, such as the choreographer & musical arranger. Ed was keen to point out Sunny Afternoon’s USP in that the lyrics of the songs act as narrator, combining with the emotional storyline of the piece, blurring the lines between song & dialogue. He also emphasised the importance of passion for the music, especially when a show is based on real people.
As someone who is slowly but surely learning about the whole theatre business, it was particularly good to hear more about the workshop stage in a show’s life. Joe explained that he finds them very important in finding out whether a show works. In this case, many of the cast were there from the very beginning – oh, plus a cowbell! John, George & Adam would go to a breakout room with Ray to work on some arrangements, and apparently come back not long after playing spot on versions of the songs. It seems the third workshop was pretty important, in hindsight, as this is when Ed came on board (subsequently coming up with the idea of the wedding scene) and the emotional heart of the show being established, as Ray shared the story of Rene with Joe when they were sat in a room together with just a piano for company. Ed described this as a eureka moment in the show’s life.
They were still honing songs & scenes during previews at Hampstead. The whole development process for a musical, in Joe’s mind, is around two years.
Casting a musical of this type could have been problematic, as it’s difficult to combine singing, dancing, acting & playing a musical instrument; they found several good actors who couldn’t nail the songs! The cast they put together all seemed to have something different about them. Lillie had a unique quality that made her perfect for Rasa, for example. And Ned workshopped as Wace (a role that eventually went to Dom Tighe) – he played piano & drums, but not the bass. He quickly picked it up (learning the basics of A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy in three days?), but you really wouldn’t know now that he learnt the instrument especially for the show! Joe stressed the importance of the band being able to play like The Kinks too – Ray said that his rhythm section “can’t play on time”, playing either behind or ahead of the beat (referenced in the show, of course: “I like it behind the beat!”). And now Adam & Ned play this style better than the originals, in Joe’s opinion.
One of my favourite aspects of the show is the combination of gig style songs, dialogue & ‘musical’ style numbers – as well as the seamless transitions between all these facets. Ed said that the soundscaping was a challenge to realise, especially as they were trying to incorporate period gear for a more authentic feel. He also felt that the new arrangements of the songs actually amplified the quality of their writing.
Something that does frustrate me a bit when I go to the show is being asked how I know the music when I’m not from that generation (I could probably write a book on that topic!). Joe told us that in the first couple of weeks of performances the audience was mostly old Kinks fans (“old plumbers, parkas”) but quickly reached younger & younger audiences, who’d then download the original albums after seeing the show. And of course the cast all knew the songs before their own involvement.
Kate posed the question of the decision to transfer to the West End – Ed responded that he & Sonia Friedman are both of the mindset that you shouldn’t earmark shows for transfer before opening, and to “let the audience decide”. Though obviously the decision was made very swiftly! And then it was a case of deciding where to put it: a 1,200-seater would be an experience, but the Harold Pinter maintains the atmosphere (but seats 650 rather than 350).
A new trailer was talked about once the show had settled in the West End, Joe had visions of choosing four iconic moments from the show (like the drum solo, he suggested – just take a moment to imagine how amazing that would’ve been!) and film them in black & white; his reference point being the classic Beatles film ‘A Hard Day’s Night‘ (depressingly the filmmakers had never heard of it). It ended up being an amalgam of his & their ideas. Parts were filmed on 60s anamorphic lenses, with an audience of drama students – and it took about 8 hours to complete!
Joe has now seen the show over 100 times and is still stirred by it – to me that says it all about the material’s longevity, the cast’s dynamic performances & the classic music. His aim is to replicate in the audience what he felt when he wrote it – I think he’s managed that with me, anyway! Ed is still excited to see it each time he goes. He highlighted one standout moment: the way John plays Too Much On My Mind with a “zen-like simplicity”. He’s certain the show has maintained its integrity & definitely has staying power.