Writer: Alan Janes
Director: Matt Salisbury
Now in its thirtieth year, The Buddy Holly Story is a phenomenal success in commercial theatre. A long-running stint in the West End and many tours around the world this show has racked up thousands of performances over the years. Part theatre and part tribute concert, it isn’t just a celebration of the music of Buddy Holly but the entire birth of the rock and roll era.
The Buddy Holly Story famously ends in tragedy. Almost sixty-one years ago, on 3rd February 1959, a plane crash killed Buddy, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens as they approached the nadir of their fame – immortalised in Don McLean’s The Day the Music Died. It is therefore impossible to witness a production with such verve and vitality without mourning the horrific loss that befell the music industry all those years ago. Buddy’s stubbornness to go against the grain and produce music the way he wanted becomes a hymn to the idea of only living once.
Texas-born Charles Hardin Holley, aka Buddy, played in this production by Christopher Weeks, is born into Country and Western yet longs to break into the exciting world of rock and roll. An early session on local radio in Texas descends in to horror as Buddy Holly and the Crickets crack the airwaves with a style unconventional to their geography. Through tenacity alone (including a determination to wear thick-rimmed glasses) Buddy’s rapid rise to fame and chart success culminates in an appearance at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York – a ‘coloured’ venue that would certainly take exception to four white boys from Texas with a ‘black sound’. Of course, the opposite happens and the rest is history – albeit short-lived.
The Buddy Holly Story is unashamedly and unapologetically The Buddy Holly tribute show and that is the main reason behind its huge success. Script, plot, story arc and character are sacrificed, in the main, to crowbar in as many numbers as possible. Writer Alan Janes employs a narrative device to further the chronology. “Well, that’s how it happened folks” becomes an all too familiar line as the three years between 1956-59 progress. A novelty perhaps in 1989 when the show was first produced at The Theatre Royal in Plymouth, this now perhaps feels dated and lazy storytelling. That said, the script is not what has made this show the success it has been. Wonderful musicianship and a desire to indulge in rock and roll is – and it comes is abundance.
The cast of thirteen are incredible musicians, singers, and mimics. Christopher Weeks is the linchpin of the cast in the title role and knocks out all the big numbers as well as achieving a tender, acoustic love song to his love. Any tribute show hangs off the believability of the act and Weeks is excellent. Miguel Angel, Cartier Fraser and Sasha Latoya get to show off their incredible voices as we arrive in Harlem with Reet Petite and Twist and Shout. The second half becomes a re-enactment of Buddy’s final gig, accompanied by The Big Bopper (Joshua Barton) and Richie Valens (Ben Pryer) before their final journey. Despite being only twenty-two years old when he died this show is testament to how much of Holly’s music has not only survived the decades but how it has become part of the popular, mainstream musical vocabulary – That’ll Be The Day, Everyday, Not Fade Away, Peggy Sue, Heartbeat to name just a few.
The Buddy Holly Story is not just for fans of his or of this era. It is a show that wants to get you on your feet to celebrate great music. But it is also bittersweet: the dramatic irony of knowing the fate of those being portrayed onstage makes the music all the more special and, equally, heartbreaking.
Runs until 1 February 2020