A young musician making it big by disregarding his elders has a timeless thrill. To this, Buddy Holly’s story adds an impulsive marriage and the grim fascination of Holly’s untimely death after just a few years in the spotlight. Bristol Hippodrome stages an entertaining, interactive performance, although the ingredients that could make a stellar show are not always mixed well.
Against a set decorated with 1950s adverts, pinups and housewives, Holly challenges the norms of the country and western industry to explore the forbidden beats of Rock n Roll. Roger Rowley is an uncanny resemblance of the geeky bespectacled Holly. As the character blooms from an awkward youngster with “less sex appeal than a telegraph pole” to a star with a hefty dose of swagger, so Rowley grows into those famous glasses as a charismatic performer.
The live music is fantastic, played with style and electric enthusiasm. Scenes which recreate Holly’s major performances channel the dynamism of early Rock n Roll gigs, with the audience becoming a whooping crowd as girls hand out flyers. Melissa Keyes deserves recognition for hilarious roles like the sassy hostess at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, where Holly and his band The Crickets stun the black crowd by being a white band with oomph.
The acting is a little stilted at times, but the occasional wobbly accent doesn’t slow the momentum created by the singing too much. The real hindrance is the script, which jumps between events clumsily and pays less attention to detail than a music history buff might like.
The stage is repeatedly plunged into darkness as tiny original Holly extracts are played, to signify songs being recorded in the studio over time - a disjointed technique which seems a waste of the instruments and voices on stage.
For Holly’s final show on the Winter Dance Party Tour, the show seems to drop the narrative of his life, and indeed Holly altogether by throwing in novelty ‘interval acts’ in front of the curtain. This sterilises the emotional impact of the tragedy, when all the audience want is to see Holly.
These faults aside, taken for what it is – a recreation of a musical legend that gets the entire audience on its feet – the show is an undeniably good time. It’s nostalgia, rather than high drama, but there’s nothing wrong with that.