Visited the Theatre Royal Stratford East in the week as we were up in town to see Bob Mould and managed to get much better tickets than were available online. It’s a beautiful Victorian building so we opt to go on the theatre tour prior to the matinee. Wander behind the scenes, past the dressing rooms, the green room, to the upper circle, etc., all refurbished to resemble the original décor of red and gold. I’d call it rococo but am happy to be disabused. It has a certain elegance and the faded glamour of an old Hollywood movie star, keeping up appearances against the onslaught of time, frayed at the edges but it’ll take more than some flaking paint to diminish her splendour. In a way, it rhymes with the production itself (and it’s not impossible that the old Palais might have looked something like the theatre), which captures an era of post-war privation and post-war optimism but although the theatre has weathered the storm and still stands, the Palais could only delay the changing of the musical guard as the big bands dissolved into the background and pop music took centre stage. Now it’s a bonafide community theatre with volunteers around to explain things, hand out questionnaires, and so on.
As it was the first time I had seen the show in any form, I had few preconceptions. I knew that Ray would be in it but thought his role might only be a cameo and he might not sing; I was prepared to be disappointed. Billed as a concert, the focus is the music: it’s all about the songs and not many of us would dispute Ray’s talent in that arena. He is the storyteller, his words providing the background, stitching the songs together but he sings as well, starting some songs that move on to the ensemble or to another performer.
I didn’t know who was new to the cast or who was an old hand; they were all excellent and I particularly liked Julie who reminded me of Shani Wallis (as Nancy) from Oliver!, especially singing ‘Something Better’, an inspirational number for which she suddenly developed a broad Cockney accent, a bit like RD himself does on occasion.
(Of course we can't overlook the choice of Julie as a name for the big sister, also used for the unattainable dream girl of the X-Ray narrator’s fantasy of RD, in ‘The Ballad of Julie Finkel’ and in ‘Waterloo Sunset’. Ray likes to keep these mysteries alive.)
Given the opportunity, RD has finally written that troublesome ‘interloper’, that scene-stealing, attention-grabbing younger brother out of his history, out of this story anyway although some of Dave’s youthful traits (belligerence, vitality, recklessness, sexual ardour, that effervescent joie de vivre, which he still has) find echoes in the younger male characters. It must be fun to revise the past like this, create a fictionalised version; in Ray’s case, streamlining, contracting, editing it for dramatic impact and personal satisfaction. The six sisters have been conflated to three with Peg and Rene’s characteristics and details slightly altered and transferred to Julie.
I tried to note down the songs as they occurred, guessing the titles from the lyrics. I don’t have them in the same order as on the Ray Davies Forum so may well have gone wrong. I won't list them all as some are mere snatches of tunes but concentrate on the ones that particularly affected me.
First, a lively song by the ensemble (there’s a band at the back of the stage) that I will hazard is called ‘The Palais’. Lets us know where we are as the cast enters, the women in fabulous 50s frocks, with magnificent full skirts, tight bodices, demure and alluring at once. I wish I’d lived in that era. Surely life was simpler then.
Then, Ray himself, looking slight, a little fragile, dwarfed by an outsize suit (makes you want to give him a hug); he sets the scene, introduces his ‘imaginary family’ and starts the story with reference to a book (no doubt simply a prompt), sounding slightly tentative but when he begins to sing ‘Come Dancing’ and ‘My Big Sister’ (an effortless swing tune), that voice is so familiar, it tugs at your heart and any wavering is overlooked.
The sisters sing ‘Putting on the Face’, a lively number full of humour, that summarises their personalities for the audience. Enter Tosher, the delinquent who has his eye on Julie, to whom he addresses an impassioned, sexually frustrated version of ‘Tired of Waiting for You’. I like the way a couple of Kinks songs have been sympathetically interwoven into the story, thread of a slightly brighter hue, immediate and fresh.
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Favourites from the first part include:
Tosher’s band’s rousing rendition of ‘You Really Got Me’, his love song to Julie;
‘The Rhythm of the Dance’, an uplifting ensemble piece;
‘Something Better’, an angst-ridden plea for more as well as a statement of self-belief (dreams once more thwarted by life and Julie’s weak heart);
‘When the Band Begins to Play’ evoking the time and place, the escapism that the Palais and the big bands represented for the workers or would-be workers with nothing to look forward to but a lifetime on the factory floor; some of this hope is ill-founded, the ‘New Towns’ of the fifties not the promised paradise on earth that Rose and Arthur envisaged, Stevenage here standing in for Australia, also disappointing in Ray’s opinion.
In the second act, there are some heart-wrenching ballads, around the Julie/Hamilton dynamic: ‘Wherever You Go’; ‘The World Won't Keep Us Apart’ plus the all-pull-together solidarity of ‘We’ll Meet in Heaven’ but the highlight is Ray singing ‘A Better Thing’ in an effort to rouse Frankie’s conscience, so delicately fervent. Notice that he sings with a slight lisp here, rendering the vocal even more vulnerable. Is this done deliberately?
I never hear the words ‘better thing’ without thinking of that other great chronicler/observer/inventor of English eccentrics and the line in A Tale of Two Cities about the ultimate sacrifice: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." Such poetry in prose. But, of course, if this were Dickens, the character would have done the better thing …. In interview excerpts, Ray has implied that Frankie’s interest in Julie is romantic but this isn’t his motivation in this version but I don’t want to spoil it for people who have yet to see it.
Ray has a fascination with certain ideas (variations on a theme), the desire for optimism is one of them; ‘Something Better Beginning’, ‘Better Things’, ‘A Better Thing’, ‘Something Better’, ‘Things Are Getting Better’ and others that don’t use those particular words but express the same emotion: ‘Look a Little on the Sunny Side’, ‘Rock and Roll Fantasy’, ‘Good Day’, etc. They reflect a positivity he strives for against the workings of a naturally pessimistic soul. You always feel that in trying to raise our spirits or his characters’ hopes, he’s trying to raise his own, a sort of cheerful fatalism. He’s really saying that things aren’t going to get better but if we don’t believe they will, we might as well give up.
The concert showcases Ray’s versatility as a writer; the only songs that don’t shine are the r'n'b numbers, although delivered with gusto by Rita (‘Do It’, for instance, seeming raucous and one-dimensional in comparison to the big band numbers, the pop and the ballads, a mere belter) and the Rock 101 of ‘Rock Till You Drop’, the latter unable to hold a candle to ‘You Really Got Me’, but of course it’s meant to represent the beginning of a band and as such is not supposed to equal the perfect pop songs in the Kinks back catalogue which sparkle anew in this setting, with ever-lasting lustre; the sheer exuberance of ‘Tired of Waiting for You’ the jewel in the crown.
It’s actually scary how versatile Ray is and this production is simply one facet of one gem in his crown, or simply a skilfully embroidered sample from Ray’s rich tapestry. Of course he doesn’t work alone and all the cast and musicians play a part – you’d never have guessed they’d only been rehearsing for a few days. I’m sure they could have put on more performances – all that work and professionalism for less than a handful of shows. Such a shame. Perhaps next time a longer run? Or perhaps a concert of the songs from 80 Days?
[There was a girl in costume at the front of the stage, enthusiastically acting out each bit of dialogue as she signed the whole show for the deaf and hard of hearing. Great job.]
Excellent news that the younger sibling, who exists despite Ray’s creative attempts to excise him from their past, is about to release a new album.