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Best Buddys - AJ Jenks and Christopher Weeks on playing Buddy Holly

Posted on 29 October 2019

It’s back! The smash-hit West End musical Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story is rocking around the country celebrating the 30th anniversary this year. After a spectacular gala opening night and first week at The Theatre Royal Plymouth – the show’s original opening venue in 1989 – Buddy is set to hit the Belgrade Theatre next week, showing from 7-9 November.

Ahead of the show, we heard from the two talented actor-musicians, A.J. Jenks and Christopher Weeks, who are keeping the legend and music of Buddy Holly alive on stage, alternating in the title role.

A.J. Jenks and Christopher Weeks are buzzing with excitement at the start of Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story’s 30th Anniversary nationwide tour. The two actors share the role of Buddy Holly, alternating between the physically demanding lead role and that of The Crickets’ rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan.

After one week of previews at The Harlow Playhouse, Buddy opened in Plymouth in September, 30 years after the first ever performance.

“Opening night was fantastic, it was amazing playing Buddy that night,” says Birmingham-born A.J, who shares the role of Buddy with co-star Christopher. “We had a great preview week in Harlow. It really sunk in how big the show is when we got down to Plymouth. Seeing the 1,300-audience spurred us on even more to up our game. You feel you have more responsibility as this was where it all started. It felt ‘this is really happening now’.

“You’ve got to think of the fans and the audience,” he adds. “The audience want to see us ace it. It’s a massive musical phenomenon and it will probably be the biggest part of my career. Getting into the role of the musical legend that is Buddy Holly is like Clark Kent, in reverse. The glasses go on and I’m Buddy.”

Buddy the Musical

Loved by critics and audiences alike, Buddy tells the enduring tale of the musical icon’s meteoric rise to fame, through to his final legendary performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, before his tragic and untimely death at the age of 22. In 18 short months the Texas-born singer revolutionized the face of contemporary music, influencing everyone from The Beatles to Bruce Springsteen.

It was on the London stage that Buddy’s legend took on a new life with the first of the big ‘jukebox’ musicals, Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, in 1989. A smash hit in the West End, on tour and around the world for the past 30 years, the show has helped to introduce Buddy’s music to subsequent generations. In the show, audiences are treated to 20 of Buddy Holly’s greatest hits, including timeless classics That’ll Be The Day, Peggy Sue, Oh Boy and Rave On.

“My dad is a massive Buddy addict,” says A.J. “His music was always on in the car when I was growing up, so it didn’t take a lot to draw me to the show. So many other bands and artists have been influenced by the music of Buddy Holly – from the Stones to the Beatles. I was screaming to get this part. I’ve been working on getting it for the best part of a year.

“It is amazing to play such a musical legend. I still can’t get over the thought of ‘A.J. Jenks playing Buddy Holly’. It’s overwhelming. It feels like I’ve lucked out and won the lottery to get the part. Thinking about opening night still gets to me.

Buddy the Musical

“In my final speech at the end, after the announcement of Buddy’s death, I felt so emotional, I had to take a moment not to shed a tear. It dawned on me that this isn’t just a normal show. It’s a massive celebration of 30 years. It’s scary but I feel massively proud and honoured to be a part of it.”

A.J. was born in Birmingham and studied at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, graduating in 2017 with a BA (hons) in actor/musicianship. He’s no newcomer to Buddy, having played the role of Ritchie Valens in a semi-professional production in 2018, but the 24-year-old is loving taking to the stage in the trademark Buddy Holly glasses.

“It really takes a lot of energy,” he explains. “I do around four performances as Buddy a week. It is great to have a few days playing Niki so that you can let Chris do his thing. You have to be very careful. In the first show I really let rip on the night and after felt a couple of croaks in the voice. I felt I’d gone too strong on it. I am being quite a boring person at the moment. I’m protecting the voice, looking after myself.

“You’ve got to stay in shape for the role, you need endurance,” he adds. “You’re throwing yourself around on stage with the guitar every five seconds, so you’ve got to be fit. Your body really aches in the morning. The best thing to do is get out and stretch, otherwise you seize up. I had a personal trainer for a while because I was starting to get a bit of a belly. I do a couple of 5km runs a week now to keep in shape.”

Buddy the Musical

Christopher Weeks also plays Buddy for half of the performances. The 29-year-old actor-musician from Buckinghamshire trained at the Oxford School of Drama. He has previously played the role of Johnny Gustafson in two touring productions of Cilla The Musical.

“It’s amazing being involved in the show as Buddy has always been on my bucket list,” says Christopher. “The response has been huge; audiences dancing, going mad, both matinee and evening. I can’t wait to see how the audiences up and down the country, in over 30 venues, respond. I’m really looking forward to going to Coventry.

“As an audience member you want to feel like you are there – there watching Buddy Holly, there at The Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake. That feeling of live music is like nothing else and the crowd keeps you in the moment, keeps it exciting and fresh. You try not to think too much about the enormity of playing a legend because that could drown you. You are not playing a huge legend of the rock & roll world, you are that person, feeling what he feels. It is a hugely exciting and wonderful to do.

“I know we’ll have a lot of fun on the road. We’re all staying together, and I’ve got some really close friends in the cast. Before each show you get that feeling ‘we’re going to smash this!’ I’m always looking for ways I can improve.”

Buddy the Musical

Christopher first saw the show as a young child in the 90s, what he describes as “an awesome experience, a big big deal”. He knew the original cast album inside out, but Musical Director Dean Elliott has taken the musical performances back to the original Buddy Holly.

“We’re so lucky with Dean Elliott, who played Buddy for five years,” Christopher explains. “He is being very authentic with the music, which is very, very cool, from Buddy’s rockabilly roots to the orchestral elements he incorporated later on.”

Buddy’s single-minded determination to push musical boundaries is clear for all to see in the show. He was considered a rebel in his time. So do the actors see anything of themselves in the role?

“I’ve always been a driven person in terms of my aims and goals and Buddy was always driving himself forward,” A.J. says. “I wouldn’t say I’m a rebel as Buddy was. I’ve always cared about my hair and he loves a good suit. I identify a lot with the character in the first act, going into the studio, being cheeky, I get that. The second act is a lot harder for me because he has grown up and is more stable and as a person I haven’t grown up.

“Buddy fell in love with Maria Elena, proposing within five hours. I don’t believe in love at the moment! I’ve literally just split up with my girlfriend.”

Christopher adds: “As far as similarities with Buddy, well I feel like I’m rediscovering my youth in act one. I also remember the feeling of going off on tour while your wife is pregnant, as I have a baby.

“For me, you give yourself over to the script, which gets easier the more and more you rehearse. You know who Buddy Holly is, how he stands, how he holds his guitar. Then you let it go and let whatever is happening affect you.”

Buddy the Musical

So, what would the two Buddys like their audiences to take away from the show?

Christopher says: “It’s a great education of Buddy Holly’s life, music and a period of musical history that was so dramatic. I’d like the audience to discover how he lived his life, his relationship with his wife Maria Elena. How passionately he lived and how brightly his light shone for that short amount of time. It’s a feeling of loss and a feeling of awe at what he achieved. The feeling of warmth you get from seeing love. Take those three things away please.”

“I just want them to have the best night they have ever had in the theatre,” A.J. adds. “I’ve had some crap nights at the theatre, where I’ve walked out. I want to give everyone a show where they come out and they feel such a buzz. In 18 months Buddy Holly blasted out 200 songs. It wouldn’t happen now and I don’t think anyone else has done that.

“What I would love to happen is that there would be a kid in the audience, thinking ‘I would love to do that’. Something clicks. If it inspires them to take up an instrument, get into theatre, get up on the stage, that would be fantastic.”

Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story shows at the Belgrade Theatre from 7-9 November. Tickets are available to book now.