'The Drifters Girl' review — Beverley Knight is the shining star of the jukebox bio-musical
It’s a crying shame that we don’t have more showcase roles in musical theatre for blazing talent like soul queen Beverley Knight, and if nothing else, this new show supplies one: Faye Treadwell, the pioneering African-American manager of The Drifters, who battled racism, sexism, and copycats to ensure her group’s legacy. As much as we need to diversify casting of existing productions, it’s also imperative that we tell new stories on our stages.
However, Ed Curtis’s book is rather less pioneering; in fact, it falls into all the worst traps of jukebox bio-musicals. Beginning in the mid '50s and racing through to the '70s, it leaves no time for depth or complexity. The dialogue is all exposition and there’s an irritating narrative crutch: Faye is telling the story of The Drifters to her young daughter ahead of a major court case, although that latter is ultimately given little weight.
In fairness to Curtis, this is a bewildering saga. On their journey from the R&B charts to mainstream success to obscurity and back to stardom, The Drifters went through around 60 members over 60 years, beginning with their frontman being drafted into the army. Faye and her husband George then fired various Drifters for drunkenness, unreliability or, it seems, for questioning their authority and asking for decent pay, but given that this hagiographic account has been approved by the Treadwells’ daughter Tina, their combative management style is never really questioned.
However, it leads to former bandmembers putting together their own versions of The Drifters and a legal row over who can claim the name. Faye, who carries on the fight after George’s death, argues that there’s only one New York Yankees: you can’t have another just because it features some ex-players. But it’s a pretty soulless notion that a band is identifiable by a trademark rather than its artists, and it presents Curtis and director Jonathan Church with an unenviable task: how to present a revolving door of characters. Essentially, it’s like Jersey Boys meets the Sugababes.
Some do register strongly thanks to the skill of the performers, including smoothie Clyde McPhatter (Matt Henry), genial Johnny Moore (Tarinn Callender), tortured Rudy Lewis and egotistical Ben E King (both Tosh Wanogho-Maud), plus Adam J Bernard zips in and out of the line-up while also creating a vivid George.
And when this luminous quartet blend their velvety voices together in the doo-wap harmonies, it’s utterly sublime. The golden oldies are like slipping into a warm bath — "Come On Over to My Place," "Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Movies," "Sweets for My Sweet," "Save the Last Dance for Me" — and some gain real potency due to their soulful renditions. Wanogho-Maud supplies a spine-tingling "Stand By Me" and Bernard makes a show-stopper out of "There Goes My Baby." The super-slick dance moves (Karen Bruce) are the cherry on the cake.
Knight, of course, brings her own firepower, and the musical kicks into high gear whenever she has a solo number. It’s not just the vocal might, the big top notes and swooping riffs, but the way she invests each line with emotional authenticity — a blend of determination and doubt, joy and heartbreak. Never mind Tina down the road: she’s simply the best.
It’s frustrating, then, that she’s not afforded the same range in the drama. We believe in Faye because of Knight, who gets a great diva entrance clad in leopard print (fab period costumes throughout from Fay Fullerton) and lands every putdown in a crisp Arkansas accent. But we don’t find out much about her upbringing, her passion for music, her marriage to George or her formidable drive, which surely wasn’t just, as presented here, in service of her family.
Anthony Ward’s design suggests recording studio while allowing for efficient and frequent changes of location, though it feels more like a touring set than West End. But, while Faye might have said otherwise, it’s the talent — Knight and her brilliant boys — rather than the product that’s the star here.
Photo credit: The Drifters Girl cast (Photo by Johan Persson)