Pros: Superb musicianship and outstanding vocals provide an accurate glimpse into 1950s pop culture.
Cons: Minor but persistent problems with stage microphones undermined an otherwise excellent production.
Sat next door to the world’s longest running play, The Mousetrap (now in its 63rd year folks) is the small, but perfectly formed Ambassadors Theatre, currently hosting Stomp but now presenting Be Bop A Lula, a barnstorming tribute to four outstanding exponents of the rock ‘n’roll genre. I know what you’re thinking. . . another jukebox musical!? But no, this is something more than a simple rehash of Dreamboats & Petticoats.
We are asked to imagine a radio broadcast featuring Billy Fury, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Roy Orbison. No real plot to speak of, but it does have a reasonable grip on reality as they were contemporaries who often appeared on the same bill. The show opens with Emcee, Spencer Evoy, a reassuring presence throughout the evening as he introduces each act with due deference and ceremony. The man also plays a wicked sax, providing ample support to house band, the Wild Caps. Two principal performers play four parts, with Lars Young taking on the role of Gene Vincent and Roy Orbison; and Gavin Stanley playing Billy Fury and Eddie Cochran. While comparison with Stars in their Eyes is tempting, performances are impressive throughout; Lars Young has perhaps the more challenging roles, mastering the erratic stage craft of Gene Vincent and tortured phrasing of Roy Orbison with ease. Gavin Stanley has the relatively straightforward task of aping Billy Fury and Eddie Cochran, who stylistically sounded very similar but lost no impact as a result. An unexpected bonus is the appearance of Jerry Lee Lewis played by Peter Gill, who, like his co-performers pulls off a well observed reading of his character – vacant expression, staring at the ceiling, manically combing his hair – just some of the nuances cleverly picked up.
With only two principal performers, we never see all four acts jamming together on stage, which is disappointing but inevitable, and is I suspect, the reason for drafting in Jerry Lee Lewis, who re-joins Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran for the finale. Gaps created by required costume changes are filled by the Wild Caps and Spencer Evoy who contributes ‘I hear you knocking’, ‘Night train’ and a blinding version of ‘Tequila’, a US chart topper for the Champs in 1958. Act II opens with a strangely weak tribute to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, which interrupts the momentum. Annoyingly, microphones were misfiring at regular intervals, and spoilt what should have been a great duet between Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran on ‘Summertime Blues’. But such trifles seemed unimportant as the songs enraptured us time and again. Among the highlights were Gene Vincent’s ‘Blue Jean Bop’, ‘Lotta Lovin’ and the inimitable title song. Billy Fury’s haunting vocals are in full effect on ‘Wondrous Place’, ‘Halfway to Paradise’ and ‘It’s only make believe’. Roy Orbison’s back catalogue is plundered with great versions of ‘Only the Lonely’, ‘In Dreams’ and ‘Oh pretty woman’, probably the best received song of the evening. Eddie Cochran’s unique brand of rockabilly is well represented on ‘Something else’, ‘Three steps to heaven’ and ‘C’mon everybody’.
Be Bop A Lula is great entertainment and shows how exciting rock ‘n’ roll was and still is. If only we could use its energy to breathe life into today’s shiny, sterile, pre-packed pop stars!
Producer: Accelerator Entertainment Productions
Box Office: 0844 8112 334
Booking link: https://bit.ambassador.theatre
Booking until: One further show on 1 Apr 2015