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Be Bop A Lula. 11 September 2021. Embassy Theatre Skegness

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Be Bop A Lula

Touring Production

Embassy Theatre Skegness

11 September 2021

I am a self-confessed fan of the 50s. Too young to have enjoyed the music first time around, I was steeped in the tradition of rock 'n' roll and rockabilly as I hail from Penarth in South Wales. Walk around Penarth on any Saturday night and you will still hear live bands playing 50s music to enthusiastic audiences derifting from the pubs, clubs or bars. It was home to countless 50s and 60s musicians such as Shakin' Stevens and Dave Edmunds. I know therefore of what I speak when reviewing a show such as Be Bop A Lula.

Although this is the music of the jukebox, this is no jukebox musical attempting to squeeze in songs to a hastily created narrative about a boy named "Johnny B Good" trying to marry a girl named "Peggy Sue", or whatever. Be Bop A Lula is an attempt to recreate the concert tours of the late 50s and early 60s, as American artists joined forces with British rockers and took their music to the mass teenage market. Many of tonight's audience would have seen the originals in their heyday, but still claim their teen sensibilities as they bopped along to tunes of yesteryear.

The show begins with an American evangelist, clad in a white suit and cowboy hat, extolling the virtues of the music and introducing Gavin Stanley as Billy Fury. Fury was probably Britain's most credible rock pioneer of the era, unusual in that he wrote and sang his own songs. He was a rangy, awkward soul with a gravity-defying quiff and moviestar looks. He also had the voice of a ballad singer and the girls swooned as Liverpool's Ronnie Wycherly brought some of the excitement his US counterparts brought to the scene. As a vocalist, Gavin Stanley does an excellent job recreating the "Sound of Fury". Dressed in a gold lamé suit, he breathes life into Billy Fury, one of many who died young after answering the call of rock 'n' roll. He opens with Fury's take on Just Because, followed by a haunting version of Wondrous Place and continues his opening set with a raucous Don't Knock Upon My Door and ends with A Thousand Stars. And just like the original tours, four songs ends his first set. Always leave them wanting more.

There is an audible gasp from the audience as Spencer Jordan emerges as a Fender Stratocaster toting Buddy Holly. He absolutely embodies the long, tall Texan. You could be forgiven for believing that the 22-year-old Holly was walking onto the stage at the Embassy playing That'll Be The Day and Peggy Sue, before slowing things down with True Love Ways. A return to the rockers with Rave On follows. His performance is so utterly convincing, that I could have watched a solo show for the night and been perfectly happy. He sounds like Buddy, he plays like Buddy and he moves like Buddy. His performance is triumphant.

The band backing the singers are The Wild Caps, led by Gerry Slattery playing a lovely left-handed Gretsch solid body guitar, a Jet I believe. They comprise five very capable musicians clad in red Harrington jackets and red flat caps to call to mind Gene Vincent's original band The Blue Caps. Slattery, as musical director, takes a vocal lead and performs the incendiary Little Richard classic You Keep A Knockin' before Gavin Stanley returns to the stage.

This time, dressed like a Western gunslinger in a silver waistcoat and leather trousers, equipped with a Gretsch G6120 (Yes, I have guitar envy!), Stanley recreates Eddie Cochran's UK tour look. Cochran, like Holly, died way too young at 21 in a West Country taxi (also carrying Gene Vincent who survived the crash) whilst on his British tour. Eddie Cochran was a musician's musician who experimented with effects and wrote numerous classics but never truly fulfilled his potential by being taken too soon. He performs C'mon Everybody, Nervous Breakdown, Three Steps to Heaven and Teenage Heaven, each reminding us of the variety to Cochran's musical ear and skill. Stanley is a very convincing rock 'n' roll guitarist and recreates the sound to perfection. It is difficult to see Stanley as Cochran though, as there is only a passing physical resemblance (after all Eddie died at 21) but the point really is the music, not the look.

After another instrumental interlude from The Wild Caps, Spencer Jordan returns to the stage, this time as the wild, rocking Gene Vincent dragging his leg behind him in Vincent's signature style after a motorcycle crash. Clad in black leather like a Shakespearean villain, wild-eyed and manic, Jordan hunches over behind the microphone and gives a convincing portrayal of the oft-imitated Vincent. It was Britain's Jack Good who convinced Gene Vincent to play up his disability when performing and gave him the idea for the rocking, leather-clad Richard III persona, and it is the way British audiences best remember him after years of touring the UK. Baby Blue leads into A Lotta Lovin', followed by Wild One, and Say Mama. His physical performance is perhaps a little too exagerated for my taste, but I cannot fault his vocal delivery. I know that in his later years Gene Vincent struggled because of his damaged leg and have seen footage similar to Jordan's perrformance, but this was a little too mannered for me. Act One ends as Gene Vincent is joined by Eddie Cochran for a performance of Cut Across Shorty.

The stage set features four towering pictures of the rockers presented in the show and these rock 'n' roll titans stare down on their modern incarnations, reminding us what was lost to the world of music. Buddy Holly was the first to go at 22 years of age in a place crash, Eddie Cochran at 21 in a car crash, Gene Vincent died at 36, and Billy Fury at 42. Such tragedies still mar the music world as talent is taken too young but the memories are as Eddie Cohran summed up, "Cherished Memories".

Act Two picks up where Act One left off, and we are once again treated to sets by the two lead actors as Fury/Cochran and Holly/Vincent. I enjoyed Stanley exploring the ballad singer that Fury became, and thoroughly enjoyed the verion of Halfway to Paradise - delivering an immaculate vocal yet again. Gavin Stanley has been playing Billy Fury for many years (since appearing in the West End production of Good Rockin' Tonight in the 90s) and it shows. His delivery is note perfect. I also enjoyed his take on Three Stars, Cochran's tribute to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper after their death. Though the song has always sounded rather mawkish, the sentiment was undoubtedly real for Cochran losing a great friend. Yet again, Stanley delivered an accurate, emotional performance.

The second half continued to play well to its audience. I was delighted to see Jordan's Holly return to the stage replete in tuxedo, as he had been on the Ed Sullivan Show in December 1957, and I loved his solo performance of the last song Holly ever wrote, Learning The Game.

I enjoy watching the recreation of icons when they are done well. We will never get another chance to see these performers live in person, and so these stage shows provide a tribute keeping their music alive. If you love rock 'n' roll, and I do, I recommend that you see shows of this kind to remind you how special some of these pioneers were.

I would happily see Be Bop A Lula again. It doesn't offer any great insight into the lives behind the music, and the performers are now considerably older than those we lost, but their music is ageless and deserves to find its audience in the 21st century.

Andy Evans

12 September 2021

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