RYAN O'Donnell has a simple philosophy to playing Ray Davies in The Kinks' musical 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 will be leading the cast in a week's run at the Grand Opera House, York, from Tuesday.
He had been touring with Jethro Tull, singing the high notes when performing with Ian Anderson, when Sunny Afternoon's musical supervisor in the London show 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', just doing two of the nine shows each week, and then I took over," he recalls. "I did my first couple of performances just before the show won four Olivier Awards in 2015, which was a real boost for everyone."
Ryan had experienced a diverse performing career, whether singing "40 per cent of the vocals" in Jethro Tull's live shows from 2011 to 2015, such as the Thick As A Brick tour that visited York in 2012; starring as Jimmy in Quadrophenia at the Leeds Grand Theatre in 2009; or 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 the Yorkshireman from Halifax.
Combining music and lyrics by Ray Davies with a book by Joe Penhall and direction by Edward Hall, Sunny Afternoon tells the story of how The Kinks rose to stardom as we witness the London band’s beginnings in the rebellious 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 Sixties' 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; here was there watching us audition, and he had his say, and 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. As a performer he was very respectful, just gesturing when he wanted to take over in the song."
Ryan graduated to the lead at the Harold Pinter Theatre 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 you are and how relaxed you are."
Now, he is reprising the role on tour. "I got to make the role my own in London, so I offered up my services for the tour and they said, 'yes, you're the right man to continue doing it!" says a delighted Ryan.
Ryan sings 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 was really looking forward to that night's show as the songs are great and the story's great too. The songs were written from 1963 to 1968, so they weren't written for the show, but by Ray at that time, all about what was happening to him back then," he says.
"What separates this show from lots of jukebox musicals is that Joe Penhall has written the show's book with Ray Davies and that's made for a story that's interesting, heartbreaking and raw, whereas jukebox musicals tend to crowbar the story into the show between the songs.
"The thing that works so well with the Davies brothers, Ray and Dave, is that they had this sort of kinetic energy and that's where a lot of art is born. That's what they had. 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 Grand Opera House, York, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york