Book: Alan Janes
Director: Matt Salisbury
Reviewer: Pete Benson
Buddy Holly is a member of a tragic elite along with the likes of Glenn Miller, John Denver, Ricky Nelson, Otis Redding and others, all of them pop stars killed in air crashes at the height of their fame.
Today a band with two guitars, bass and drums and the creators of their own material is almost de rigueur but it was Buddy Holly and the Crickets who were among first pioneers of the form.
Buddy, one of the earliest and best examples of the jukebox musical genre, tells the story of this highly influential artist. We follow Texas boy Holly from his early country and western roots up to his tragic demise a few short years later.
Glen Joseph as Buddy gives a highly energetic performance. He creates Holly as a smiling, happy endearing man who, when it comes to his music, abandons his polite Southern manners and fights vociferously for his creative integrity. Holly and his first manager, Hipockets Duncan spar and banter together. Duncan is played by Shaun Hennesssy whose big booming voice instantly segues into smooth as silk radio DJ voice and back to boom to great comic effect.
The show has a strong script which allegedly Paul McCartney, the owner of Holly’s music copyright, insisted on being an accurate representation of Holly’s life. One of the script’s great achievements is to contextualise the events giving full emotional impact to just what a shift in culture Holly was a part of. The show is set firmly in the world of fifties American live radio and the tension between country music and the new rock ‘n’ roll is evident and more so the tension of white boys performing ‘black’ music in a country that still saw its black citizens as second class. Just two years before That’ll Be the Day was a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic and Rosa Parks had famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. The subject of race is bought home cleverly in one of several extended set pieces when Buddy and the Crickets perform at the all black Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Through a simple but effective theatrical device they create perfectly the shock and awe when the four white boys walk out onto stage.
No musical would be complete without romance. Holly meets Maria, falls in love and marries her in what seems to be an absurdly quick time even allowing for theatrical compression. This however turns out to be a true account of their courtship. Maria is played by Vivien Smith who imbues her with a shyness which grows into a protective confidence, nicely done in such a short space of time.
The second half of the show spins inexorably towards Holly’s doom. This is ratcheted up by Maria’s premonition of a plane crash. Most of the rest of the show is essentially a recreation of a gig from Buddy’s final tour. He is joined on stage by The Big Bopper, Chantilly Lace and Ritchie Valens, La Bamba. Joseph’s boundless energy drives the show to frenetic heights bringing us to our feet.
This is a talented cast inhabiting multiple parts and playing an assortment of instruments. At times the sound mix leaves a little to be desired. Perhaps the sound designer is going for an authentic sound of the era but if this is at the expense of losing some vocal clarity it’s a mistake. Other than one interminable and unfocused scene where a show compere interacts with us during a set change, that can’t possibly need the time allotted, the show moves along at a very pleasing pace. Enhanced by Joseph’s charismatic performance and his fabulous Buddy Holly smile it all feels surprisingly fresh and authentic.
Photo: KJohnnyW | Runs until 3rd May and on tour until 9th August