RYAN O’Donnell has a simple philosophy to playing Ray Davies in Sunny Afternoon.
“I’m never going to be Ray Davies but I’ll make it my role and the big thing is to have fun with the show,” says Ryan, who leads the cast in the show, telling the story of The Kinks’ rise to stardom.
Ryan had been touring with Jethro Tull, singing the high notes performing with Ian Anderson, when the musical supervisor for the London production of Sunny After-noon told him the “chap playing Ray might be leaving; might you be interested in doing the show?”
“It turned out the guy didn’t leave, but initially I was taken on to ‘alternate’, doing two of the nine shows each week, then I took over,” Ryan recalls.
“I did my first couple of performances just before the show won four Olivier Awards in 2015.”
Ryan has had a diverse performing career; singing “40 per cent of the vocals” in Jethro Tull’s live shows from 2011 to 2015, starring as Jimmy in Quadrophenia and playing Gregory in Romeo And Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in one of his first jobs after leaving drama school.
“But I’d never done a West End residency until Sunny Afternoon,” says Ryan, from Halifax.
Combining music and lyrics by Ray Davies with a book by Joe Penhall and direction by Edward Hall, Sunny Afternoon follows The Kinks from the London band’s beginnings in the 1960s, their barnstorming debut on Top Of The Pops, their infamous American tour and their triumphant comeback.
The show is driven by such era-defining hits as You Really Got Me, Waterloo Sunset, Days, Dedicated Follower Of Fashion and Sunny Afternoon, songs that Ryan has sometimes found himself singing in the presence of Ray Davies.
“It could knock your confidence knowing the great man is staring back at you, but he gave me his support,” he says.
“He was part of the casting process; he was watching us audition, and he had his say. I’ve met him a few times since then.”
On the day David Bowie died, Davies joined O’Donnell on stage to sing Waterloo Sunset.
“We were told at the interval he’d be doing it as his tribute, as he’d sung the song with Bowie in the 1980s,” recalls Ryan. “Performing with Ray was great. He was very respectful, just gesturing when he wanted to take over.”
Ryan graduated to the lead role last August. “When you’re playing the alternate you’re bound by the chap who’s playing the lead the rest of the week, and your confidence grows the more you play the lead. I find the audience often feeds off how confident and relaxed you are.”
Now he’s reprising the role on tour, singing no fewer than 26 of the 28 songs in the show.
“It’s a big old sing for me, but the other night I said to Mark Newnham, who plays Dave, that I really looked forward to it as the songs are great and the story’s great too,” says Ryan.
“The songs were written from 1963 to 1968, by Ray, all about what was happening to him back then.
“What separates this show from lots of jukebox musicals is that Joe Penhall has written the book with Ray Davies, that’s made the story interesting, heartbreaking and raw, whereas jukebox musicals tend to crowbar it in between songs. What works so well with the Davies brothers is that they had this kinetic energy. They didn’t really want to work together, but they needed each other, even if a lot of the story is Ray’s fight for control.”
- Sunny Afternoon runs at the Alhambra from Tuesday, February 28 to Saturday, Maarch 4. Call 01274 432000.