Do you want to rock and roll? That is a question asked several times during Buddy, and each time the answer is an ever-more enthusiastic yes from the raucous first night audience. For some, Buddy Holly is the greatest rock and roll star of all time; he was an innovator, a fantastic musician and had a unique style that was all his own. Jo Fletcher-Cross was at the Duchess to watch the Buddy Holly story unfold.
Buddy is not a new show to the West End. It opened 18 years ago at the Victoria Palace before transferring to the Strand (now the Novello) in 1995 where it ran until 2002. The show toured nationally and internationally, and now comes back to London at the Duchess. In 1991, Buddy won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical, and it is a testament to the excellent cast and production team that it still seems fresh and fun so many years down the line.
Like Holly himself, the show was a trailblazer, paving the way for similar jukebox musicals. Things have come a long way since, with the technical wizardry of We Will Rock You and the mega success of Mamma Mia! showing no signs of stopping, but it is the simplicity of Buddy that is its strength. The Adrian Rees designed set has had to be adjusted for the small Duchess stage, but it works well without seeming cramped, almost astonishingly so in the concert section of the second half where the stage seems to be filled with musicians and dancers. The only new addition is a video screen showing silhouettes of DJs, announcers and locations, which saves on the space needed on stage.
The first half concentrates on the rise of Buddy Holly and the Crickets from country band to rock and roll heroes. Buddy (Matthew Wycliffe) is charming, stubborn and incredibly talented, and his band, so shy and uncertain when they first step on stage to play a country song, transform into stars when they start to play their own music. Their triumph at the Harlem Apollo – by no means certain as Buddy was the first rock and roll star to play there – is a complete delight as the shy Duchess audience become the wildly enthusiastic Apollo audience, and so end up recreating history.
Almost the whole second half is dedicated to Buddy’s final appearance in Clear Lake, Iowa. I don’t think I will be spoiling the plot by saying that it does not end well for Buddy, and his touching goodbye to his young pregnant wife Maria Elena (Lucia Rovardi) provides a layer of almost unbearable pathos over the high-voltage concert that follows. The Big Bopper (Lee Ormsby) gets everyone singing along with Chantilly Lace, Ritchie Valens (Miguel Angel) whips the audience into a frenzy with his pelvis action during La Bamba, and Buddy himself plays hit after hit, culminating in a wild and enthusiastic version of Rave On. After that concert the three stars boarded a plane which crashed, killing them all, a tragedy which is all the more poignant after such a stunning display of their respective talents.
This is an old-fashioned, sweet and touching celebration of Buddy Holly. From the costumes by Bill Butler and the brilliant musicianship of the whole cast, to the authentic programmes handed out to the audience for the Clear Lake concert, everything about this show is designed to make you feel as if you are there, sharing the short journey of a very talented man. The rest, as they say, is rock and roll.