New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 24 June, 2005

The week's most appealing opening and not just for ageing pop kids is Telstar, a bioplay which is part Phil Spector, part the life of playwright Joe Orton. Actor Nick Moran (of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels fame) may be staggeringly miscast elsewhere in the West End at present as the Victorian critic John Ruskin, but he and his co-writer James Hicks recognise a corker of a story when they see one. Record producer and auteur Meek created Britain's biggest-ever-selling pre-Beatles single (the instrumental which gives the play its title), in a homemade studio in his small flat above a handbag shop on a main north London street: backing vocalists in the bathroom for echo, "orchestra" on the landing, and so on. He was also a gay man in an age when such people were persecuted both by the law and freelance thugs, an occultist who believed that he was in touch with the spirit of Buddy Holly, and increasingly, as the hits dried up and his speed-freak taste for slimming pills turned into a hopeless dependence on prescription uppers and downers a depressive paranoid who ended up shooting dead his landlady and then himself on the anniversary of Holly's death in 1967.

Moran and Hicks' play is hardly innovative in its structure: it begins with a police interrogation of Meek's long-suffering secretary in the immediate wake of the murder, then unfolds the story in flashback, often with the aid of extremely clunkily contrived radio announcements. But the evening has strengths enough to overcome these drawbacks. As well as the story itself and the music (although this is not a nostalgic compilation-musical: we see classic 1960s tracks being fashioned, but hear only a snatch at a time), the evening is driven by a remarkable performance from Con O'Neill in the central role. He portrays Meek's obsession both in the studio and in his vain pursuit of the frankly talentless young singer Heinz Burt, the growth of delusions to fill the gap left by diminishing success, and overall a classical sense of doomed genius.

Written for the international edition of the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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