In Forever Plaid, a 1990 hit show, a group of high school wannabes die in a car crash on the way to their last gig, find themselves in the after-life and are given the opportunity of performing one last concert.
The writer, producers and director of Heaven Can Wait from which Forever Plaid, thematically, is not a million miles away, should perhaps have paid a little more attention to what made Plaid such an international success - namely, its beguiling blend of affectionate, witty pastiche and whimsy.
In Heaven Can Wait, the dearly departed are not nerdy kids seeking fame but serious teen idols who have already made it. They are Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. Theatregoers who have seen Buddy, or are of a certain age, will remember "the day the music died". On 3 February 1959 a light aircraft carrying Holly & co to a gig, crashed killing all three and their pilot. In David Cosgrove's heavy- handed slice of metaphysics, they all end up in Patrick Connellan's interstellar post-modernist American diner where they must wait for their passport to heaven.
There, one Stella Brown, a heavenly reject, runs the establishment and eventually guides the celebrities to the realisation that they must first confront their demons before being ready to enter Nirvana. In the interim, they cheer themselves up by playing a selection of their most famous hits. The whole package is a very curious melee of serious drama and rock 'n' roll.
You have the feeling that somewhere in the bowels of this pretentious piece of nonsense, a great play is struggling to get out. However, in Peter Rowe's under-directed and sloppy production, high debate about the nature of fame, guilt and insecurity just does not gel with "Peggy Sue", "Chantilly Lace" or even "La Bamba".
As West Side Story would have it, there is far too much flabber-jabber. It's very much a stop-start affair and, as soon as the rockers start getting into their stride, another gloomy slice of spiritual hectoring takes over, largely from Jan Graveson's Stella, whose well-intentioned admonishments to the self-obsessed stars are let down by a grating Dolly Parton twang. And frankly, who cares whether the Big Bopper was a bigoted redneck, that Holly left his pregnant wife to tour, or that the ethnically confused Valens had a chip the size of a house on his shoulder?
Nevertheless, there are some fine vocal and instrumental performances by Damien Edwards as Valens, Andy Nichol as Holly and (particularly) Michael Cuckson as the Bopper. As the beleaguered pilot, Ian Conningham also has his moments.
Yet this piece is neither fish nor fowl. It is not JB Priestley and it is certainly not Carousel. Nor is it a rock 'n' roll compendium concert. But I did love the curtain jam session. It's just a shame there wasn't more jam, and less peanut-butter.
- Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at Bromley's Churchill Theatre)