Review: Nostalgia is never enough

Ray Davies, The Storyteller; Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
It is probably to do with a concert he cancelled at the Southport Floral Hall in the early 70s, when I was still sufficiently in awe of heroes from the previous decade to be devastated by his non-appearance, but the post-Kinks Ray Davies has always been something of a disappointment. And sad to say, The Storyteller continues that tradition.

Originating as a promo for his book X-Ray ("a strange and unauthorised autobiography", as he tells us, twice), the show - part readings, part songs (with the assistance of guitarist Peter Matheson) - goes up to the recording of the first hit, "You Really Got Me", and is laced with quintessential Davies themes - class and Englishness. But the whole never quite gels enough to inspire.

It was clear at the beginning that, consummate rock performer though Davies is, he has not quite got the measure of the audience in this format. "Pinball Wizard!" someone shouted as he strapped on his guitar. Not a bad little joke about getting his 60s pop icons mixed up, but Davies asked sourly, "Have we got the retards in?" What the heckle deserved was an inclusive joke, not a put-down.

The structure provides a handy way round the "they only want to hear the oldies" dilemma - telling the story of at least part of his life means that he has to play the hits; it would be odd not to. So songs like "Victoria" and "Dead End Street" were covered well, while "See My Friends", some of it rendered partly in the minor key, became a powerful lament for his sister, who died young. But the quality of the newer, explicitly autobiographical material suffered by comparison. His way with words seems to have vanished, leaving in its place the clunking syntax of inferior 60s protest songs, the overstuffed lines of the local English teacher who's always fancied himself as a bit of a songwriter. The list of names in "London Song", for example, which is probably supposed to sound comparable to the likes of REM's "The End of the world as we know it", sounded instead like a drunken rocker falling down the stairs.

The narrative element never quite hits the spot either. Though Davies' account of north London working class life after the war is diverting, it's never richly layered enough to be anything more than that. Davies is no Muswell Hill Steven Berkoff. And while his songs, which pinned down the essence of the 1960s better than most, were given terrifically muscular readings, nostalgia was the emotion most powerfully evoked by "The Storyteller" - which isn't really enough.

When it came to the account of "You Really Got Me", the climax of the show, the disparity between past and present became most painful. Davies gave an account of how his brother, Dave, "played himself into rock and roll history" as he spat out that immortal raspberry of a guitar solo, and it was inevitably an anticlimax when Ray Davies and Matheson went into a 12-bar blues version, which was gutsy enough but without the adrenaline edge. It needed that big noise, yet to play it on tape over the PA would have been an admission of faded powers. Which, in a way, would have been a suitable judgement on the evening.

Chris Maume

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