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.
Still, in three short years between 1956 and 1959, Buddy Holly and the Crickets pioneered the modern pop group of vocals, guitars and drums with a string of wonderful songs that merged Country and Western with rock ‘n roll, blues and even a poetic plaintiveness. The Beatles always acknowledged their musical influence and John Lennon admitted that Buddy “made it okay to wear glasses”. When Holly, aged just 22 – such a shock, still, to realise this - was killed in a plane crash along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, it was, according to Don McLean in “American Pie”, “the day the music died”.
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 most exciting part of the show is the early emergence, clearly charted, of the distinctive, taut, driven sound of “That’ll be the Day” on the Decca label.
Two Chuck Berry items – “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Johnny B Goode” – show just how far Holly and the Crickets personalised the three chord blues in such superb songs as “Peggy Sue,” “Every Day” and “Heartbeat.” The only “event” is the mistaken arrival of the group in the Apollo in the middle of Harlem. But the boys win over the black audience with “Not Fade Away” and drive on to a triumphant first act finale with “Oh Boy.”
The wooing and winning of Maria Elena (Lucia Rovardi) is a perfunctory business (“I’m gonna marry you!”) and the trajectory of Buddy’s fame is only interrupted by the announcement of Buddy’s death in a black out in the middle of “Rave On.” “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.