Review: Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story at the Orchard Theatre

Following hot on the heels of last week’s The Glenn Miller Story, the Orchard Theatre in Dartford now plays host to another show about a musical legend taken way before their time. This time it’s Buddy Holly, the bespectacled 1950s rock ‘n’ roll star known for such classic hits as Peggy Sue and That’ll Be The Day, who died in a tragic plane crash at the age of just 22.

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The Buddy Holly Story by Alan Janes opened in London’s West End in 1989, and since then has been seen by over 22 million people. In a format that’s become well known in recent years thanks to jukebox musicals like Jersey Boys and Sunny Afternoon, the show tells the story of Buddy Holly’s rise to fame, his whirlwind romance with his wife Maria Elena, and his final performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. And while it touches briefly and poignantly on the star’s tragic death alongside his friends the ‘Big Bopper’ J.P. Richardson and Ritchie Valens, the show is very much a celebration – not only of the man but also of his music, which paved the way for such legends as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

The 2016 tour stars Glen Joseph as Buddy Holly, sharing the role with Alex Fobbester. While he doesn’t bear much resemblance to the star physically, Joseph has a boyish charm, and his on-stage moves and imitation of Holly’s distinctive vocal style are – to my untrained eye and ear at least – pretty spot on (they also earn him an approving nod from my mum, who knows far more about it than I do). He’s a hugely talented musician too, as are all the cast, and between them they soon have the audience rocking and rolling right out of our seats.

Buddy Holly’s career lasted only a couple of years, but in that time he recorded around 50 tracks, and it’s surprising how many of these are familiar, even to those of us who weren’t around at the time. More than once I found myself singing along to the likes of Heartbeat, Everyday and Rave On, without even realising I knew the words. But the show also makes time in its soundtrack for a selection of other well-known 50s hits like Shout and Why Do Fools Fall in Love, all punctuated by the velvety tones of radio announcers across the States and beyond.

Photo credit: Johan Persson
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Plenty of music there may be, but the brevity of Buddy Holly’s career means there’s not actually a huge amount of story to be told in between. Act 1 is devoted to his rise to fame with the Crickets, from their humble beginnings in Lubbock, Texas – and after teasing us halfway through in the recording studio with intros to some of their biggest hits, we finally get to enjoy the songs in full during the Act 1 finale, set at the Apollo Theatre, Harlem.

The story’s inevitable tragic conclusion is foreshadowed in Act 2 by the star’s wife begging him not to go on tour, and then delayed as long as possible by some comic banter from the Surf Ballroom MC (Matthew Quinn) and two memorable performances from the Big Bopper (Thomas Mitchells) and Ritchie Valens’ pelvis (Jordan Cunningham – the rest of him is there too, obviously, but for some reason it’s the pelvis that gets all the attention…) before the whole cast come together for the irresistible finale.

The Buddy Holly Story is both a nostalgia trip and a fitting tribute to a young man who knew what he wanted and clearly had much more to give. While the story, set and costumes may have more meaning for those who were around in the 1950s, the show and its music offer a great evening’s entertainment for anyone, of any age. And if you don’t leave singing That’ll Be The Day – well, you’re made of tougher stuff than I am.

Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story is at the Orchard Theatre until 29th October.

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