Theatre review: Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story

Theatre Royal Bath until 15 April
Words by Melissa Blease

Just over 64 years ago, the innovative, legendary rock’n’roll icon Buddy Holly died in a plane crash after a gig at The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, alongside his friends and contemporaries J P Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) and Ritchie Valens; they were aged 22, 28 and 17 respectively.

34 years later, Alan Janes’ Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story premiered at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre where it remained buoyant for over a dozen years. Janes took over the production of the show in 2004 and his triumphant, award-winning jukebox musical has raved on throughout multiple UK/worldwide tours pretty much non-stop since then.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is not a deep dive into the Buddy backstory; we learn almost nothing of his childhood, or his personal life, his influences, or the split from his original backing band The Crickets. But nor is it merely an ameliorated version of a tribute act featuring Stars In Their Eyes/Starstruck-style lookalikes wearing badly-fitting costumes.

What it most definitely is, though, is a highly respectful, joyful, affectionate appreciation of one of the most iconic figures in the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame celebrating Holly’s brief career in chronological order from country music rebel to triumphant, pioneering, influential superstar, with two impeccably produced, immersive recreations of his landmark concerts (the first show in a six-night residency at Harlem’s legendary Apollo theatre – where he and The Crickets were the first white act to perform at the venue – and that fateful, final Surf Ballroom gig) adding all-live, trip-back-in-time context. 

In the spotlight throughout the show, A J Jenks fully proves the purpose, potency and unique pizzaz of the ostensibly geeky teen (think Jarvis Cocker for the teenybopper generation) intent on his mission to rip it up, almost eerily recreating Holly’s ability to switch from softly-lilting crooner to urgent falsetto interspersed, of course, with those trademark ‘vocal hiccups’.

His Crickets never miss a beat either, with Joe Butcher and his fearless feats with his massive instrument in particular bringing Holly’s double bass player Joe B Maudlin to tangible, lively life. Elsewhere, the super-charismatic Miguel Angel (tripling-up in three roles, including Apollo Theatre host Tyrone Jones) almost stealing the show from the headline act as Ritchie Valens and Christopher Chandler’s distinctively exuberant Big Bopper raising the roof en route to the story’s tragic denouement. 

“Love to last more than one day; love is loving and not fade away,” Holly sang in his 1957 hit Not Fade Away (which, fact-seekers, hit the charts again in 1964 courtesy of The Rolling Stones’ cover version). Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story lives that love on behalf of Charles Hardin Holley himself – and it’s clear that our love for both of them isn’t at risk of fading away any time soon.

Left to right: Joe Butcher, Christopher Chandler, Miguel Angel and Josh Haberfield. Credit: Hamish Gill