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First Night: Buddy/Liverpool Empire

Heather Smith fails to rock around a very slow moving clock

Written by . Published on November 29th 2011.

First Night: Buddy/Liverpool Empire

I WAS born in 1989, the same year Buddy opened in the West End. Since then (for approximately 60pc of my life), the Buddy Holly story has boasted a stop-start residency on some fairly decent London stages. This is amazing because, for the most part, it really isn’t that good. 

They’ve come because they want to sing along and dance in the aisles, but for too long they just don’t get the chance

The fundamental problem is the script: it is piecemeal and much of the time feels completely pointless. You learn very little, for instance, about Buddy himself (Roger Rowley). Apart from constantly reassuring his mother that he’s eating well, Buddy’s character is singularly developed to illustrate his fierce determination to bring his bespectacled brand of rock n roll to a mass, integrated audience. 

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Fair enough, this was some ambition at a time when radio stations casually refer to rock n roll as an all out “communicable disease” let alone mere “coloured” music. Still, far from socially challenging, the first act seems intolerably slow, dragging the audience from Nashville to New Mexico to New York with only a sprinkling tease of full musical numbers to separate the endless studio time and radio snippets. 

When recording for Norman Petty (Gavin Barnes), Buddy discusses songs in detail with the Crickets’ Joe Maldin (Christopher Redmond) and Jerry Allison (Tom Milen). Each time, the audience twig and prepare for the track only to find that the lights go down and the plot moves on. It’s this focus on conversation rather than hit records that let’s Buddy down. The show would surely work better turned inside out: essentially to be a tribute concert with occasional pieces of life-story thrown in. 

Rowley does well, however, to remain star-like and indeed likeable as Buddy through some pretty dull stuff. He coaxes a clap with relative ease and is genuinely deserving of hearty applause for leading a cracking acappella version of Everyday and equally for dancing around during Peggy Sue, making his super long limbs look wholly independent from his upper body. 

Set wise, it’s a jolly bright and busy affair. Designer Adrian Rees has compiled a striking 50s collage dedicated to the all-smiles ad era and features everything from Coca-Cola to Campbell’s soup. There’s plenty to look at, shall we say, should your mind wander.

Then again, there’s always the clock… 

21:40 The audience are asked if they want to see some rock n roll. And, no, this is not a joke. 

21:45 “Are you ready for Buddy Holly?” Seriously, at a quarter to ten, you couldn’t make this up… 

21:55 A disco ball emerges for Raining in My Heart. At last, another full track! The performance is gentle and the glittering light projects a warm fuzzy sparkle onto the surrounding Empire walls. Most people sing along and it’s easily the most enchanting moment of the evening. 

22:00 Buddy springs off the drum kit and exuberantly suggests that we “liven up the pace”. About bloody time. Plunging into a turbo-charged version of It Doesn’t Matter Anymore, the crowd, too, turn up the volume and seem to be enjoying the new level of noise no end. It’s a shame because, two and a half hours in, this energetic boost just seems like too little too late. 

A decent proportion of this audience must have been my age or younger when Buddy Holly was rocking n rolling around the charts. You can picture them all as weekenders in a Catholic social club; playing bingo or doing a quiz, drinking, enjoying music… They’ve come to see Buddy because they want to sing along and dance in the aisles, but for too long they just don’t get the chance. 

It occurred to me that, being a Monday, I could have been over at the Pen & Wig having all this hand-clapping musical fun with irreverent resident band Scallywag. No slow bits and beer a plenty. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.


*Buddy is at the Liverpool Empire until Saturday 3rd December

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