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The Buddy Holly Story

West End hit The Buddy Holly Story is taking early Rock ‘n’ Roll on tour – get your feel-good fix!

A feel-good musical about one of the most famous tragedies in Rock ‘n’ Roll history? Yes, it can be done. West End hit The Buddy Holly Story really pulls it off and Muddy Sussex Editor Debbie reveals why.  Catch this one at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal until Sat 24 June.

Even with the knowledge of how sadly his story ended, I went along to opening night expecting that after a couple of hours of foot-tapping sugary fare, I might feel a little queasy, like I’d pigged a whole box of chocolates. I do love Buddy Holly’s brilliant back catalogue but have also always thought of it as somewhat cutesy. The quite startling context given in the musical made me change my mind. He was a radical, a pioneer and his music, as part of early Rock n’ Roll in the late Fifties, was even seen as ‘dangerous’.

Buddy Holly musical on stage

There’s also an interesting racial aspect – with its roots in Blues, Rock n’ Roll was dubbed ‘coloured music’ and in those segregated times somehow subversive. In fact, with bands having far less exposure on anything but the radio, some people were unsure whether Buddy Holly and The Crickets and others like them were black or white – a situation which builds to an amusing and heartwarming end to act one.

Alex Fobbester (who alternates with another actor in the role) is an excellent, energetic Buddy, believably carrying off the hiccupping vocals and geeky enthusiasm of the man once told he had ‘as much sex appeal as a telegraph pole’.

Radio station announcements, often from a booth above the stage, are used to help set the scene, including some fun retro ads with singers harmonising about twin tubs which help beautifully recreate those stayed times.

Because all the music in The Buddy Holly Story happens logically in the studio or at gigs, noone’s bursting into song in the middle of a conversation accompanied by an unseen orchestra. This is handy if you’ve a partner or friends usually reluctant to see traditional musicals (I’ve rarely met a straight man who’ll admit to being keen).

Buddy Holly musical on stage

Both acts end with a landmark gig, the last, with the Clear Lake, Iowa concert played by Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper just hours before they were tragically killed in a plane crash. I approached these scenes with foreboding – winced at the coin toss that sealed Valens’ fate – yet, as I expected, the musical manages not to dwell on the tragedy but the legacy – in fact I found the poignant moment when the deaths are covered in a radio announcement rather too brief.

I was pleased to see Thomas Mitchells as a fun Big Bopper and Jordan Cunningham as a preening and (somewhat scandalously in those days) gyrating Ritchie Valens getting equal billing during the final musical numbers which really built a great atmosphere in the theatre.

Buddy holly musical on stage

I’d always enjoyed Buddy Holly’s songs but left with a new respect for his work. When you see it performed up close with a real band you realise his repertoire is less lightweight than you may think. Given the context you also understand the boundaries he was pushing and why the likes of The Beatles have played tribute to him as an inspiration.  You also learn he was passionate and experimental about music, getting hands on in the studio’s production process long before the Fab Four worked with George Martin.

Having had three to five Buddy Holly songs on my mind as I entered the theatre I was also staggered to realise the extent of his back catalogue and humbled to think his career spanned just two years. The show brought the crowd to its feet on a Monday night and there was a lovely moment as we filed out afterwards when the soundtrack suddenly dipped to catch us all singing along – word perfect – to a hit penned by a 19-year-old nearly 60 years ago.

The Buddy Holly Story is at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal until Sat 24 June 2017. theatreroyal.com

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