Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ray Davies' Come Dancing

The Storyteller writes one for the stage.

Ray Davies and the Kinks released Come Dancing on State of Confusion in 1983. A wonderful video soon followed, complete with period characters and costuming, and it was shot at the Ilford Palais, the dance hall lovingly brought to life in the song's lyrics. Ray's been talking about writing a musical based on that song for years.

This is not one of those "grab a bunch of a pop group's hit songs and try to write a story around them" types of musicals now popping up all over Broadway and the West End. Come Dancing is is authentic in content and presentation, without any excess. It is all heart and full of truths both hard and tender. As fellow Kinks fan Rupert advised me outside the theatre -- you will need a hankie to get you through it. Rupert and his aunt had seen the matinee and were lingering outside the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Rupert had managed to snag an autograph from Ray when he dashed out for something to eat between shows.

I stood in front of the theatre, in awe of its storied past. It was Joan Littlewood's home for many years, the place where she produced theatre with a social conscience and used techniques that were innovative for her time. And oh yes, she was a total rarity -- a woman directing and producing in an era that was singularly devoid of women in creative control of what appeared on a professional stage. Her work was born of commedia mixed with agitprop. "Oh What a Lovely War" first appeared here, along with "A Taste of Honey" and "Fings Ain't What They Used to Be." The theatre has maintained its mission of service to the community, a community that features 160 different spoken languages brought there by immigrants from around the world.

Littlewood described theatre as a living breathing process: "Good theatre draws the energies out of the place where it is and gives it back as joie de vivre." Come Dancing lives up to Littlewood's expectations of good theatre. It was the perfect venue for this musical tale of a working class family living in post-war Britain in the years just before birth of rock and roll.

The big bands played jazzy dance music on a Saturday night at the Ilford Palais. The stage setting was simple and inclusive of the audience, spilling over and blurring the line between audience and performer. The Palai's dance floor was bordered by cafe chairs and tables on the side and back, while on the other side a functioning bar served both actors and audience during the pre-show and at the interval. The five piece band was perched up above the band leader's microphone at the rear of the stage. Front and center, a revolving circle provided dancing and acting spaces. Actors flowed in and out of audience areas, and on stage local couples danced through time back to the 1950s

There were no glitzy set changes. Pools of light served to define places other than the dance hall. We always knew where we were: on a rooftop, in the family home, out in the street -- even though there were no furnishings. The acting was impeccable, each character vibrant and all too human. Based on Ray's memories of observing his older sisters' preparations for a Saturday night dance, the plot involves the love of a young white girl for a black musician from Jamaica. The impossibility of such a connection is juxtaposed with the moment in time when black music began to stir the souls of young white teenagers. Indeed, three young men form a rock band as the the Big Band era winds down. The new beat underscores the changing rhythms of life in Great Britain. Old ways are broken up as entire neighborhoods are torn down, families relocated and given elocution lessons to cover cockney origins.

The musical confronts the harsh reality of a white culture that could not bring itself to talk to, let alone shake the hand of, a black person. It also reminds us of our working class roots and how socio-economic forces and family culture shaped our outcomes.

There are twenty new songs in Come Dancing. They are not typical musical theatre by any means. They are not written to stop the show with excessive glitter and an endless chorusline, but simply to tell the story. Their changing musical influences chart the progress of a young man's musical education. Ray has stated that music in this show is a tribute to the first music he listened to -- his older sisters' records. I'm probably not the only one looking forward to an original cast recording of Come Dancing. Fans are hoping for a move to the West End, and then on to NYC.

The dancing is wonderful, the singing glorious, and the story is one not to be forgotten. My only nagging concern about this musical is will it be allowed to stand on its own without the presence of creator/narrator Ray Douglas Davies? Yes, it is his story, but it is a story that should eventually be released for others to perform for audiences scattered here and there. As pleased as I was to be leaning over the royal circle balcony for a fantastic view of Ray telling his tale, I could not help but think that "Tired of Waiting" at the beginning was not necessary. I did note that the family name in the musical is not that of "Davies." I tried to imagine some other actor telling the tale as if it were his own. I'm quite sure that it would work, which pleases the director within me.

Here is a list of the songs, as given by Kinks-fan-beyond-measure Olga in the Kinks Preservation Society Digest:

Tired of Waiting (Ray)
Come Dancing - part (Ray)
My Big Sister (Ray)
Putting on the Face (Ray, the Sisters)
Gonna Change the World (Rita)
Saturday Night (Tosher, Sid and Basil)
When the Band Begins to Play (Frankie, Company)
A Penny for your Thoughts (Frankie)
Because I'm Yours (Frankie, Annie)
The New Towns are Coming (Rose and Arthur)
I Got Me a Knife (Tosher)
Rock Till You Drop (Tosher, Basil and Sid)
Believe in Yourself (Rita)
There's Gonna Be Something Better (Julie, plus Rita)
We Might Never Be This Way Again (Company)
Do It! (Rita)
Why I Love You (Frankie) If I remember correctly, this is a pastiche of
a very bad love song and is only a snatch
Wherever You Go (Julie)
Truly Beautiful (Company)
The World Won't Keep Us Apart (Julie, Hamilton)
In Heaven (Company)
A Better Thing (Ray, Hamilton, Frankie)
and Come Dancing as an all cast finale

In an interview, Davies stated that the story is timeless, that youth, violence, family conflict and class are all intertwined and continually played from generation to the next. The only thing that changes, he said, are the clothes. See for yourself in the show extracts released to YouTube by the theatre:


olga ruocco said...

Thanks Wendy, a lovely review. One song was missed from the list...Don't Forget the Rhythm of the Dance, which is the last one before the finale. This song was workshopped at the National Theatre a few years ago.

Sorry that I missed you, as I was there for both matinee and evening performances.


Village Green said...

Hey Olga! Thanks for filling in the missing information. I was with my mum! She read the reviews and decided it would be worth seeing. We were in the center of the royal circle. Great seats!