Previously a long-running staple of the West End, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story returns to North London for its first fringe production in Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse. It tracks the meteoric rise of Buddy Holly who managed to become one of the world’s top recording artists and shape the future of rock’n’roll music in just a couple of years before his untimely early death.
This musical puts that music full square in the centre of the show and deservedly so. Part biopic, part tribute concert, we follow Buddy and his Crickets friends on their struggles to record the type of music they wanted, their subsequent rise to fame and what it did to them. Featuring about 20 of Holly’s songs (almost every one a classic) and both acts climax in mini concerts, indeed most of the second act is a replication of the ill-fated final concert at Clear Lake, featuring Richie Valens with La Bamba and Big Poppa singing Chantilly Lace on top of Buddy Holly’s numbers to provide a bit of variety and it is all just an absolute pleasure to watch.
As Buddy Holly, Roger Rowley is very accomplished and he needs to be, the whole show rests on his shoulders, but he gets across the perfectionist intensity that drove him to great things in the studio and the nerdy charisma that permitted him to convince others to stay with him recording things over and over. His singing and guitar playing were also of an excellent standard, keeping the audience engaged and enthralled throughout.
All the actor/musician ensemble members work extremely hard though, all playing multiple roles and switching between instruments with ease. Stand-outs for me were Jason Blackwater’s Big Bopper, Nicky Swift’s sax playing, Jos Slovick’s Ritchie Valens and probably the funniest moment of the night, Deanna Farnell’s comic rendition of the US national anthem. But there really are no weak links here, everyone is having a great time and it shows.
There are issues around the scene changes. Having to wrestle large instruments and cables around a very small space presents the obvious logistical problems and these will become smoother over time, but there were much simpler changes which took just as long for no apparent reason and these really do need to be tightened up. And if you are going for a night of drama, then you will be disappointed: the telling of the story really does take a backseat to the music with very little emotional engagement being permitted, the only real connection coming with Buddy and new wife Maria-Elena duetting on ‘True Love Ways’ and no real drama, even during the split with his backing band, the Crickets.
And this is the only real problem with Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story: because his life was so tragically short, there isn’t too much of a story to tell and little insight is provided here. In being so strong during the musical scenes, one longs for the dialogue to stop and for the band to start playing again. That said, for an evening’s entertainment, especially if you’re a fan of this era’s music, then you can’t go far wrong than visiting this tiny space for a larger-than-life experience.
Finally I have to mention the lovely couple sat next to me who have been visiting the Gatehouse regularly for over 10 years all the way from Upminster. It just reminds you that for all the talk of theatre needing to reach more diverse audiences, it is the continued support of regular fans that enables smaller theatres such as Upstairs at the Gatehouse to look to the future.