Buddy, the musical tribute to the late, great rock ‘n’ roll singer Buddy Holly, returned to the West End last week after a five-year absence, opening at the Duchess Theatre on 7 August (See 1st Night Photos, 8 Aug 2007). The show features many of Holly’s greatest hits which are used to tell the story of his life leading up to the moment of his death.
Co-written by Alan Janes (who also produces) and Rob Bettinson (who also directs), the production is designed by Adrian Rees, with John Banister acting as musical director. The lead role of Buddy is alternated between Dean Elliott and Matthew Wycliffe (who performed at the press performance). The cast also features Greg Last, Nick Sayce, Lee Ormsby, Miguel Angel, Sean Needham and Lucia Rovardi.
Buddy premiered at the West End's Victoria Palace on 12 October 12 1989, before transferring on 6 October 1995 to the Strand Theatre (now the Novello), round the corner from the Duchess on the Aldwych. It finished there on 3 March 2002 and has since continued to tour nationally and internationally. The Duchess is the show’s third West End home.
Critics might not be the biggest Buddy Holly fans in the world - and most felt this show is more suited to those who are – the “big” and “bold performances on offer here, notably that of Matthew Wycliffe as Buddy, succeeded in generating enough energetic goodwill to leave at least a few of them with a “smile” on their faces. Meanwhile, the “sillier bits” of Holly’s final performance, inviting audience participation, caused others to frown. Nevertheless, most recognised that, despite minimal drama, lack of character development and jukebox saturation, the popular and the party atmosphere still has audience appeal.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “It’s impossible to dislike Buddy, but I am disappointed to discover how little there is to learn or love about him. All the virtues of Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson’s 1989 show are still there – the high voltage energy, the brilliantly spot-on costumes of Bill Butler, Andy Walmsley’s riotous design of posters, advertisements, ruched curtains and glitter balls; and each act ends with a concert you would happily pay to see on nostalgia night at the Hammersmith Palais. Being one of the first and best of the jukebox compilation shows does not save it, however, from looking just like one of them. Subsequent tributes to Roy Orbison, Motown, Abba and even Queen have developed the genre into braver attempts of narrative complexity … Matthew Wycliffe (who shares the role of Buddy with Dean Elliott) sings very well without overdoing Buddy’s characteristic ‘catch’ in his voice, and the musical direction of John Banister is impeccable … ‘The rest will be just rock and roll.’ And so it proves, with a joyous amalgamation – now almost a performance cliché – of actors and audience in an ‘impromptu’ party. If that’s the sort of thing you go to the theatre for, you will be in seventh heaven.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (two stars) – “This is less a portrait of the man than a tribute concert by a band of look and sound-alikes. It’s difficult to rejoice at Buddy’s return to a West End already awash with nostalgia-heavy, drama-lite musical fare. But its actor-musicians are energetic, the playing and singing is on the whole impressive, and Matthew Wycliffe, who alternates in the lead role with Dean Elliott, has bags of goofy charm … We watch his Buddy change from a gawky, bespectacled kid who has, as a local DJ puts it, ‘the sex appeal of a telegraph pole’ to an unlikely star. Adrian Rees’ design — a cardboard collage of Fifties memorabilia — makes a serviceable backdrop to the journey, and Bettinson’s production proceeds smoothly enough through the first act, from studio recording sessions to a live gig before an initially hostile crowd at Harlem’s legendary all-black Apollo Theatre. The second act, though, is marred by a central soggy lump of audience participation and front-of-cloth comedy. Its purpose is to cover the dragging-in of a bandstand for the final sequence — a recreation of Holly’s final gig. It’s so interminable that once it’s over you might find you’ve lost the energy for any dancing in the aisles. Strictly for die-hard fans of Holly’s whiteboy, white-bread brand of rock’n’roll.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “Having run in town for 13 years until 2002, it toured nationally afterwards and now may well occupy the Duchess, one of the few West End playhouses suited to small-scale plays, for the next decade. This thin bio-musical by Alan Janes and Bettinson himself aims to satisfy the craze for classic rock 'n' roll hits played by newcomers. It offers tit-bits of biography and musical highlights from the Texan singer-guitarist who started out with sedate Country and Western and then turned to the ‘communicable disease’ of rock 'n' roll, giving it adrenaline rushes and huge hits in the late Fifties, before dying in a plane-crash. Buddy was originally garlanded with superlatives but has since been accused by some rock-music experts of playing fast and loose with the facts, of being a one-dimensional excuse to stimulate hearts, feet and hands with the seductive, familiar sounds of ‘That'll be the Day’, ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ and ‘It Doesn't Matter Any More’. These last two songs rouse the audience to thrilled participation in a second half that unwisely reprises the sillier bits of Buddy's last concert. Then Lee Ormsby's Big Bopper and Miguel Angel's athletic Ritchie Valens help bring Dean Elliott's vocally and musically ardent Buddy to climactic heights and the audience to a tumult of nostalgia or excitement.”
Robert Shore in Time Out London (three stars) – “The first thing to say about Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson’s phenomenally successful musical – returning to London after a five-year absence – is that there’s not much to say about it. The second half is largely taken up by a Stars in Their Eyes-style reconstruction of the Great Bespectacled One’s last performance, with Buddy and his buddies running through ‘Chantilly Lace’, ‘Heartbeat’, ‘La Bamba’ and a lot of other over-familiar hits … The first half tries, not entirely convincingly, to establish the Texas boy’s rebel credentials. The local suits try to mould him into a country star but the nerdy singing telegraph pole just wants to rock ’n’ roll … Whenever conflict raises its ugly but potentially interesting head, it’s quickly disposed of: racial and intra-band tensions are summarily dealt with. Even love isn’t allowed to disturb the troubadour’s emotions unduly: no sooner has Buddy set eyes on Maria Elena than he’s married her, she’s pregnant and they’re all set to live happily ever after. Big, bold performances are the main plus points in Bettinson’s staging – but actual drama? That’ll be the day.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “The show that I have somehow missed in its previous incarnations proves ludicrously enjoyable … Though the biodrama about the bespectacled pop genius from Lubbock, Texas is a touch plodding at times, it tells his story efficiently enough, while also evocatively capturing the feel of 1950s America. Buddy actually addresses his first redneck record producer as Sir, without a flicker of irony, while the scene in which he and the Crickets play the Harlem Apollo wittily but also touchingly conveys the role pop music has played in breaking down racial barriers. But you don't come to shows like this for dialogue or ideas. You come for the hits, and Holly's back catalogue - awesome if anyone had produced it, downright miraculous in someone who died at the age of 22 - remains an utter joy … As ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘That'll Be the Day’, ‘True Love Ways’ and ‘Rave On’ receive splendid performances from a young and talented cast of actor-instrumentalists, one enters a lost age of innocence and pleasure … Matthew Wycliffe was playing Holly on the night I saw the show, singing almost identically to the great man, beautifully recreating those thrilling little guitar solos on his Fender Stratocaster and suggesting both the charm and the artistic steel of his character … Buddy Holly's magnificent music undoubtedly ensures that you leave with a smile on your face and a spring in your step.”
- by Tom Atkins