Buddy may be subtitled The Buddy Holly Story, but that’s a bit misleading. There’s no real attempt to tell the story here – the show is unashamedly a string of classic hits, joined together by a few details about Holly’s latter years and a couple of imagined scenes of the great man in the recording studio or backstage.
Unlike more recent examples like Mamma Mia, none of the songs are woven into the plot – we’re simply invited into the studio with Holly, or into the audience in his gigs in Harlem and (fatefully) Clear Lake, Iowa. As one of the earliest examples of a jukebox musical, the creators clearly banked on their audience being more interested in a high-energy musical good time than in a well-crafted tale. And going by the response of the Theatre Royal audience, they were right.
This lack of narrative depth can be frustrating. We barely meet Holly’s wife, Maria Elena Santiago, let alone get to know her or her impact on Holly. Nor is Daniella Agredo Piper, who plays Santiago charmingly despite limited material, given any chance to portray the grief of the ‘widowed bride’ famously referenced by Don McLean. Similarly, the split between Holly and the Crickets is brushed over: “I guess we’ll never know why those boys went their separate ways” says Thomas Mitchells’ radio DJ Hi-Pockets Duncan, and that, apparently, is that.
The sense of not wanting to dwell on uncomfortable or downbeat topics is palpable. A Texas small-town boy marrying a Puerto Rican girl would have raised eyebrows in 1958, which is nodded at in a phone call to Holly’s unseen mother but never raised again. The awkward question of the debt Holly (and other white rock and roll stars) owed to African American musicians of the time is hinted at in a comic backstage scene at the Harlem Apollo, but not really fully acknowledged. Even Holly’s death, while treated respectfully, is allowed to interrupt the beats only for the briefest of moments.
Of course, all of this is quite deliberate and is aimed at fitting as many musical numbers as possible into the two hours and fifteen minutes run time. And those numbers are superbly performed by a gifted and energetic cast, many of whom also play the instruments live. There’s genuinely no song that isn’t delightful, from the toe-tapping (Peggy Sue, Johnny B Goode) to the sweetly simple (True Love Ways, performed by AJ Jenks’ Holly as an ode to Santiago).
Jenks has all the effortless charisma you’d expect of a leading man, and the vocal and guitar skills to do justice to the legend, and is clearly having a whale of a time. Purists may note his voice is a tad on the nasal side compared to Holly’s smoother style, but it’s hard to care about this when Jenks is delivering such a committed and energetic performance. He’s also an accomplished actor, particularly enjoyable in various comic riffs with Mitchells. Indeed one of the downsides of the focus on the music at the expense of the narrative is he isn’t given the chance to show off this side of his skills more.
Mitchells is another stand out in an excellent cast, switching with bewildering rapidity between multiple different characters in what must be an exhausting performance. A natural showman, he’s especially entertaining as manager Norman Petty and in an extended ‘intermission’ solo session as the MC at Clearlake. Miguel Angel and Christopher Chandler both compete with Jenks in the audience-pleasing stakes as Richie Valens and the Big Bopper respectively, with their renditions of La Bamba and Chantilly Lace highlights of the show. Stephanie Cremona also deserves a particular mention for her versatile performance, encompassing acting, dancing, singing, piano and saxophone.
Adrian Rees’ simple-but-effective set and Darren Coopland’s colourful, playful lighting design both deserve significant credit for their contributions to the feel of the show – which is, as is very clearly the intention, to deliver a stomping good time to an audience hungry for the sound, energy and optimism of the rock ’n roll era. Job done – and as long as you know that’s what you’re getting, Buddy is a joy.
Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story is playing at the Theatre Royal until 29 July.
Photos credit: Hamish Gill.