First Night: Come Dancing, Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Davies proves he can really get them going
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The Independent Culture

Ray Davies is one of those rare popular songwriters whose singles would undoubtedly add up to a passable evening of narrative theatre.

His oeuvre is filled with fabulous characters and nostalgic tales of London past – so when you first hear that he's written a musical, you could be forgiven for thinking that it's going to be We Will Rock You, Kinks-style, with a storyline starring some transvestite named Lola. Instead, Davies' Come Dancing contains just three Kinks songs, including the titular track. The rest of the show is made up of original numbers by Davies, who has been trying to get a production off the ground personally for over a decade.

It's not the first musical he's been involved in but it is the first time he's given himself a leading role, as the show's narrator. Come Dancing is an only semi-autobiographical piece set in the East End of the 1950s, where Davies recounts his fictional family's Saturday night adventures at the Ilford Palais, home to the "best smell in the world", a mixture of Brylcreem, cigarettes, cheap perfume and beer. The story centres around the youngest of his three sisters, Julie, a pretty former polio-sufferer who, as the show opens, is celebrating her 18th birthday by making her first visit to the dancehall with her parents and her two older sisters.

It's a night that will, inevitably, lead to both laughter and tears. Director Kerry Michael's staging is rarely imaginative, though he does place some audience members at tables onstage where, before the show begins, they mingle with dancehall veterans and the cast's stage school types, all mugging furiously beneath their teddy-boy tailoring. There are three wonderfully judged central performances from Julie (a delightful but defiant Gemma Salter), Hamilton (Delroy Atkinson) and "Uncle" Frankie, pitched between suave and seedy by an assured Alasdair Harvey.

The Palais is Frankie's place, but his regular Saturday celebrity bookings – who, mysteriously, never materialise – turn out to be the least of his deceits. Unlike Frankie, Davies is no natural song and dance man but he is playing a version of himself, outside of the action, so it seems not to matter. Despite his occasional awkwardness, his charisma carries him through.

While it's nice to find that Come Dancing isn't just another jukebox musical, there are moments during Act One when you wish that a Terry would turn up to take Julie's arm and allow Ray to sing a chorus or two of "Waterloo Sunset", such is the scarcity of truly toe-tapping numbers.

Instead, we are introduced to Hamilton, a young Jamaican saxophonist to whom Julie takes a shine – much to the dismay of everyone else, particularly her flick-knife wielding suitor, Tosher (Marcus Ellard).

The simmering racism in the room is typical of Davies' skill as a social observer. His play takes place in a period of dramatic change. Frankie, an easy listening singer for whom the old ones will always be the best, is forced to confront the forces of progress that will eventually lead to bands like the Kinks, even if, in the interim, he must endure the caterwauling of Tosher's skiffle trio, and the ever-present threat of teenage violence. The first act closes with a musical clash of the generations.

Meanwhile, Julie's sister Rose and her fiance are planning to move to Stevenage: "It's one of them new towns" Their plans produce the funniest number of the night, with its hopeful evocations of a newly built home, with all mod cons and an outdoor swimming pool. The second act produces more compelling action, and a better group of tunes, including a lovely romantic duet, a ballad bounced around by Davies, Atkinson and Harvey, and a couple of catchy ensemble choruses. The elegiac coda is the most touching moment of the evening, during which Davies dedicates Come Dancing – the song and the show – to the memory of his real sister.