Before Mamma Mia! there was Return to the Forbidden Planet. And before Jersey Boys there was Buddy. A jukebox bio-musical ahead of the trend, much like its title character, Buddy has been on the UK theatre scene in some form or another for an impressive 19 years, and shows no sign of stopping as the current West End run continues (having been planned as a six month tour stop and extending twice) while a new tour is set to embark.
Buddy, as the name implies, tells the story of prototype rocker Buddy Holly and his rocket-speed rise to fame and untimely death. In many ways, the show is quite a success: it covers the key time-span in Holly’s career (1956-1959) and makes the man quite likable despite portraying him as a stubborn, selfish workaholic who doesn’t eat and prevents his band from sleeping because something’s just not right with an arrangement. The show moves swiftly from hit to hit and event to event while keeping the audience inline with the turbulence of the times, ending the first act not when the Crickets hit the pop charts, but rather when the band managed to win over an all-black crowd at Harlem’s Apollo Theater despite being four of the whitest people to ever live in Texas in a funny, energetic concert sequence worthy of bringing down the curtain.
Unfortunately, Buddy also suffers from prototype syndrome: the second act is wildly uneven, as we follow Holly’s whirlwind marriage, departure from the Crickets, and fateful tour with the Winter Dance Party. It’s this last event which (tasteless pun unintended) brings everything crashing down. The final evening is dramatised in its full glory, including an extended MC-audience sequence, and the plot grinds to a halt for a 20-30 minute concert yet Holly’s death is passed over in a minute, showing a chair with his guitar, before summoning the undying spirit of rock via Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode” and the mandatory encore.
The RZ doesn’t want to imply at any point that he’s ignorant of the fact that Buddy’s selling point is the music - it’s smack you over the head obvious, and people aren’t going because the plot is so intricate and advanced. That said, if the RZ wanted to see a tribute band he’d go to a flat out concert. And boy oh boy could the cast of Buddy put on a great concert. The entire cast double as musicians and make it work. There’s a lot of energy on the stage, and while the RZ would like to single out performers, the cast aren’t listed on the website and as always he didn’t buy a programme. In general, however, he didn’t find any weak points from the performance side.
The design, on the other hand, is weak. The cheap looking, obviously well toured and worn set pieces are wheeled in and out in a way that makes the automation in Jersey Boys even more stunning, even if the rougher methodology makes for a more “rock” atmosphere in line with the uncharted early days, gleefully countered by an eye-attacking set full of commercial images and brands from the era. A video screen for animations is smack dab in the middle of this backing and herein lies a problem: the animations are ultra-smooth, clearly created for video vs. film, and look too modern for comfort, particularly when a flash to a radio broadcast in England uses the current BBC logo and most of the typefaces shown are also too new to be accurate. The resulting effect is out of place and breaks period in an unpleasant and intrusive way.
Where: Duchess Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 15:00
How Much: £35-55
Concessions: Seniors can book matinees in advance for £25, student day seats for £17.50
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20.50 and you’d be foolish to pay more - Buddy is on tickets for a tenner every weekday and discounts are everywhere.
RZ Other notes: This production was originally supposed to be leaving the Duchess in March to make way for a transfer of Xanadu that subsequently fell through. Having seen the inside of the venue now, the RZ agrees that it would be the perfect home for the quirky American musical, but wonders if, come March 2009, the opportunity or desire will remain.