When Buddy last played in London it was bang in the middle
of the West End (at the Duchess) with its name in lights, so it comes as some surprise to find it
restaged above a pub in Highgate Village. But Upstairs at the Gatehouse is one of the
better established fringe theatres and director John Plews, one half of Ovation
Theatres, has a pulled off a show that would rival any West End
spans from Buddy’s beginnings as one member of the Crickets, a struggling band
in Texas, fighting to keep his creativity, through to his rapid rise to success
and finally the last concert before his tragically premature death in 1959.
The small venue works particularly well for the recording scenes. In the bigger scenes such
as the concerts at the Apollo and Clearlake it feels as though you’ve been
lucky enough to get to the front of the crowd. Set designer Fi Russell has used
the stage very well. Placing the radio cubicles above the stage to be spotlighted
when needed is a masterstroke and used to great effect when conveying Buddy
Holly and the Crickets' rise in the charts.
There are a few
standout performances from the multi-talented cast. Andrew Ashford as Hipockets
is perfect; he manages to be funny whilst conveying real affection towards the
young Buddy. Furthermore his narration as the Texan DJ/manager locates you
firmly in the '50s. Jason Blackwater’s Big Bopper is fantastic and his
performance of Chantilly Lace at Clearlake is one of the best of the night.
Roger Rowley has the difficult
task of portraying Buddy Holly. He is clearly a talented musician and his
singing as Buddy is spot on for most of the show. In the ‘on stage’ Buddy
performances he manages not only to imitate his unique voice, but also his
mannerisms. ‘Off stage’ he is less convincing. There are a couple of moments of
supposedly high drama, which instead seem a little flat. But there are some
affectionate moments between him and Emily Altneau’s Maria Elena Holly.
The rest of the cast,
who play several instruments, as well as several parts each, really shine in the
musical numbers where they are allowed to let loose. The joyful energy at the
end when the stage erupts with music is so infectious that it will have the
audience, many of whom may remember Holly’s music when it was in the charts,
Holly Story was never meant to be a faithful biography but a fun celebration
of the legend's incredible music. If you love Buddy Holly, if you love rock and roll,
you will love this.