Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Book: Alan Janes
Music and Lyrics: Buddy Holly and others
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story can reasonably claim to be the first jukebox musical, opening as it did in 1989 in London and subsequently on Broadway and touring internationally. Having been playing almost constantly for almost 30 years, how does it stand up now?

As the action opens, we see Holly and his band, the Crickets, performing on KDAV, their local radio station, from where they are spotted and signed to the country-loving Decca Records. Holly, however, wants greater control of his music, which leads to the dissolving of that contract and a subsequent association with producer Norman Petty, who recognises their promise and takes over as their manager. Act I closes triumphantly as the Crickets perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. In Act II, Holly meets Maria Elena Santiago, the receptionist at his music publisher, and is immediately smitten. Five hours later, they are engaged and soon married. But cracks begin to show in Holly’s relationships with Petty and the Crickets and Holly heads to New York alone. In 1959, he sets off on tour with The Winter Dance Party with other music greats. After a concert at the Surf Ballroom, Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens set off to fly to the next venue…

Adrian Rees’ set is simple and adapts well to the various locations, from studios to Central Park to the Surf Ballroom. Alex Fobbester as Buddy has his look and the sound; indeed, the playing by the actor-musicians throughout is accurate, transporting us to those musically exciting times. And what a selection of music there is – including Holly greats like That’ll Be The Day, Peggy Sue, and other hits of the time including Chantilly Lace, Shout, and Johnny B. Goode. Musically, Buddy mines a rich seam and does so perfectly and with respect.

Alex Jane’s book, however, is less successful. Always subservient to the music, in Act I especially it provides somewhat clunky links between the songs as the episodes depicted pass before our eyes. The sequence in the Surf Ballroom in Act II has great dramatic irony – there can be few who don’t know the ultimate outcome – but maybe outstays its welcome as it strays into tribute act concert territory and the narrative arc stalls. Nevertheless, at this performance at least, there were plenty in the audience who lapped this sequence up, singing, clapping, hand-jiving, even dancing in the aisles, and who jumped enthusiastically to their feet when Fobbester asked if we would like more rock ‘n’ roll.

Fobbester’s Holly is likeable – outwardly diffident but with a steel core when it comes to music. His almost childlike enjoyment is well drawn and his vocal talents excellent. Alex Tosh brings a believable excitement to his performance as producer Petty as well as showing his frustration as Holly moves on. Joe Butcher and Josh Haberfield as the Crickets’ bass- and drum-players Joe B Mauldin and Jerry Allison certainly shine as they play and show great showmanship. We do feel the comradeship between them and Holly and also some of their pain at the subsequent parting of the ways.

Kerry Low is a credible Maria Elena – her elegance and hint of sass are portrayed well. Her concerns for Holly when she begs him not to on the fly on The Winter Dance Party are clear, leading to a quite beautifully tender moment as Holly shares his new song for her, True Love Ways. The youthful ensemble cast brings great energy to the piece but is sometimes less convincing when portraying older characters

Other memorable moments include Thomas Mitchell’s larger-than-life Big Bopper, an eye-watering set from the Apollo performers (played by Miguel Angel and Jordan Cunningham – who is later also memorable as the swivel-hipped Ritchie Valens).

Overall, this is a great night for those wanting to wallow in nostalgia for a simpler time – and there were plenty in this audience who were looking for exactly that – but as a serious piece of theatre, it doesn’t squarely hit the mark.

Runs until 15 October 2016 | Image:Johan Persson

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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