The Drifters Girl
Book by Ed Curtis, based on an idea by Tina Treadwell, co-created by Adam J Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry, Beverley Knight and Tosh Wanagho-Maud
Michael Harrison, David Ian for Crossroads Live, Tulchin Bartner Productions, David Mirvish, Playing Field and Nica Burns
Curve Theatre, Leicester
Kudos must be given to a jukebox musical which opens with a young girl putting money into the slot of a jukebox. The Drifters Girl starts as it means to go on, with a delicious medley of Drifters hits (“Hello Happiness”, “Kissin’ in the Back Row” and “There Goes My First Love”).
This musical is barely two years old; it premièred in Newcastle in October 2021 before transferring to the Garrick Theatre the following month. Nominated for Best New Musical at the 2022 Olivier Awards, it is now deep into a major UK and Ireland tour.
Slick, sassy and fun, The Drifters Girl is probably best considered in the whole, as its fast pace and the band’s constantly evolving line-up leave little space for emotional exploration or satisfaction, particularly in terms of the character upon whom this story is based.
Girl (Jaydah Bell-Ricketts) is the daughter of Faye Treadwell (Loren Anderson, not pictured in the production images) and is essentially the vehicle through which we learn of Faye’s story as manager of The Drifters. Faye takes no prisoners—she can’t afford to as an African American woman in a white male-dominated world—and she manages the band’s many iterations ruthlessly. Admiring her strong character, George Treadwell (Miles Anthony Daley), co-creator of The Drifters, originally hired Faye to manage the band. He later divorced his wife, George and Faye married and had their daughter. Meanwhile, there were numerous disputes with band members over pay, legal challenges over ownership of The Drifters’ name as well as personal tragedies.
So, there are clearly a lot of stories that could be told here and, while director Jonathan Church keeps things moving, it feels like issues are grazed upon rather than tackled in any depth. Taken as a story about a woman fighting against the prejudices and attitudes within the music industry in the bountiful rock ‘n’ roll and Motown eras, as well as her mission to protect the band’s name, then that is essentially what this is, although why she does what she does isn’t always clear. Faye often reminds us that The Drifters are like the New York Yankees: the team may change but they’ll always be the Yankees, so some clues to business practices here.
The Drifters wouldn’t be The Drifters without their music though, and they for me are the stars of the show. The four Drifters inhabit multiple roles: Ashford Campbell as Ben E King and Rudy Lewis, Tarik Frimpong as Clyde McPhatter and Lover Paterson, Ethan Davis (also not pictured above) as Johnny Moore and Daley as George and many others. Their performances are full of energy, charm and spot-on harmonisation.
Doubling is brilliantly done; each character, however brief their appearance, clearly defined through prop or mannerism.
Interpretations of “Stand By Me” are well-adapted for the changes in mood, and Anderson’s performance in “Harlem Child” is powerfully delivered.
The whole look of the show is evocative of the period, and Fay Fullerton’s costumes are gorgeous. As a masterclass of everything about a production working together as one, then the set (Anthony Ward), lighting (Ben Cracknell), choreography (Karen Bruce) and video projection (Andrzej Goulding) in the fun-yet-biting commentary during “Come On Over To My Place” perfectly highlights the ignominious era of “No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs”.
My advice is enjoy this musical for its brilliant performances of many well-loved classic songs that still sound fresh.
Reviewer: Sally Jack