FringeReview UK 2017
Alan Janes writes and produces this slim but affecting biopic studded with stand-out, outsized performances from the cast. Directed by Matt Salisbury with a Lego-and-Mondrian-like set backdrop by Andrew Rees. Pete Cox’s sound system reverberates. Darren Coopland’s light glitters with essential black-outs and curtain-downs for scene changes lighting works effectively to evoke depth and variety on tour. Miguel Angel’s choreography includes one bass becoming a dancer. John Banister’s musical supervision ensures authentic practice.
Thick-rimmed spectacles, a plane vanishing with a legend in a blizzard, great songs. It’s not the Glenn Miller but Buddy Holly Story, though musically it ends more Miller than Holly.
Alan Janes writes and produces this slim but affecting biopic studded with stand-out, outsized performances from the cast. Directed by Matt Salisbury with a Lego-and-Mondrian-like set backdrop by Andrew Rees that slots lights from ‘On Air’ to ‘Diner’ with whacky versatility, it’s topped by an outraged Hicksville man shouting ‘cut’ whether a radio station or studio.
But in this story the Country-and-Western’s upstaged with explosive playing when Pete Cox’s sound system reverberates; too much for one couple, though clear and no noisier than others in this genre. Only in big band numbers at the end did I feel Holly’s melodies were almost drowned: but that’s his fault for ending in a Winter Garden.
Darren Coopland’s light glitters over the audience at this point, more Sixties than Fifties perhaps. With essential black-outs and curtain-downs for scene changes lighting works effectively to evoke depth and variety on tour. Miguel Angel’s choreography includes one bass becoming a dancer – so gyrated is it by the contortions of Tom Sowinski as Joe B Mouldin, one of the two Crickets Holly drags along to fame. John Banister’s musical supervision and the performers’ sheer talent jolt us like the coffees served to keep the band upright in perfectionist Holly’s repeat takes to six a.m.
The storyline’s simple enough, Holly and his Crickets performing County-and-Western at their local radio station break into ‘That’ll Be the Day’ full of a braggadocio towards women that’s at least quaint and doesn’t do Holly’s later sensibilities service, but what a song given the full metal here. Various confrontations with local stations and management mean even Holly’s Decca contract lapses because Holly refuses his C&W remit. It’s important to realize that rock was seen as ephemeral, no-one thought it’d last and that stars like Elvis and Holly had no more than months before order re-established mainstream pap. Well, eighteen months with Holly, but these changed music.
Holly was the first star to write his own songs, determine his look with iconic glasses, engage with the recording process and experiment in ways prefiguring The Beatles who learned so much, experiment with others’ instruments. The use in ‘Everyday’ of the celeste for example so skilfully dispatched by Kerry Lowe as Vi Petty, wife of Holly’s manager. She also enjoys a horrendously-delivered song as Mary Lou Sokoloff towards the end.
Alex Fobbester’s Buddy Holly inhabits his role with verve, a kind of petulant affirmation and with his wife a heart-stopping sensitivity – and just a bit of sexual triumph as he phones his ever-anxious mother to tell her he’s marrying. His way with the hiccoughing high tenor line, fiendish tessitura that demands you stay there but can-belto too, is masterly.
Sowinski’s talents extend beyond bass-twirling as his Maudlin’s persona harrumphs his rumbling discontent. Josh Haberfield’s Jerry Allison seems altogether more ambitious credited as co-writer, getting his way with the name of Peggy Sue because he won’t otherwise lay down his innovative beat. Alex Tosh as smooth visionary manager Norman Petty also plays a mean saxophone later: all the company are generously triple-threat as the professional term goes.
There’s a delicious turn when Holly and Co get to Harlem’s Apollo and – crossing racial divides – bond so beautifully on stage, showing Holly’s generosity and vision. He cheerfully shares solo spots with other players and completely different genres. Watch for a great comic then musical turn from Jordan Cunningham and choreographer Miguel Angel with ‘Shout’ which Lulu later made her own.
The narrative threads through clashes, wooing Maria Elena (Celia Cruwys-Finnigan) who initially doesn’t know who he is, and her married prophetic anxiety leading to Holly’s hushed solo ‘True Love Ways’. Then a complete suspension of story. There’s back-scene badinage, introducing new characters: Ritchie Valens, Cunningham again and his astonishing ‘Bamboula’; and Thomas Mitchell’s outsize vaunt as The Big Bopper in ‘Chantilly Lace’.
You can craft a superb story like Million Dollar Quartet with outstanding performances in role, or create an inclusive feel-good show – what we have here. The audience are chivvied to clap sing and shout along, as if at the end we’re Holly’s last fans at the Winter Gardens. ‘Brigh-ton? Don’t know it… anyone else from Brigh-ton?’ as horrendous laughing MC Matthew Quinn badinages with everyone. The second half hangs fire dramatically as scenes changes produce amusing turns (Kerry Low, Matthew Quinn).
Buddy Holly’s Orchestra comprises everyone; more big band than rock. It melts assumptions we might have had, where Holly might have gone. Clearly an artist to break down racial and musical barriers as well as innovative, it’s difficult to know. All artists taken from us young provoke this, but predicting Holly’s trajectory is particularly frustrating.
But what he’s left is here: ‘Maybe Baby’, ‘Words of Love’, ‘Listen to Me’, ‘Think It Over’, ‘It’s So Easy’ ‘Well… all Right’ the downbeat ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, ‘Changing All These Changes’ and the others mentioned. But this Holly grabs Chuck Berry covers like ‘Brown-Eyed Handsome Man’ and ‘Jonny B Goode’ covers he made his own like ‘Fade Away’ and ‘Oh Boy’. Others at the Winter Garden perform ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ hideously smooched by the Winter Quartet of Low, Cruwys-Finnigan, Angel and Butcher.
It’s a superb show, the fast-track to know Buddy Holly’s world with storyline and songs that influenced and were influenced in turn. There’d have been no Beatles, Stones, Bob Dylan perhaps (as his just-released Nobel speech makes clear). There’s room to craft an even more compelling story, but as a show its generosity and – bar one heart-stopping tribute – good-humoured inclusiveness proves irresistible.