The Drifters Girl
Book by Ed Curtis (based on an idea by Tina Treadwell and co-created by Adam J Bernard , Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry, Beverley Knight and Tosh Wanogho-Maud)
Michael Harrison, David Ian, Crossroads Live, Tulchin Partner Productions, David Mervish, Playing Field and Mica Burns
The Opera House, Manchester
There are challenges in creating a biographical musical about the doo-wop and R&B / soul vocal group The Drifters. Founded in 1953 as a backing group for Clyde McPhatter and later Ben E King, they are more a brand than a band. Aside from the aforenamed vocalists there are no distinct individuals (no John, Paul, George and Ringo) but rather a collection of anonymous musicians (since formation there have been 60 members) willing to perform in effectively a tribute act for a wage. In a way, therefore, the actors in The Drifters Girl are behaving the same as the members of The Drifters—pretending to be in a ‘real’ group.
Author Ed Curtis takes the unusual approach of telling the story of The Drifters from the viewpoint of the group’s manager, Faye Treadwell. It is an original tactic but not without risks. The entertainment industry is full of cautionary tales of groups like S Club 7 or TLC who suffered financial hardship while their managers prospered. Curtis is, therefore, siding with the exploiter and, as the show is based upon an idea by Treadwell’s daughter, one can hardly expect a critical viewpoint.
The ethically dodgy situation is mitigated by portraying Faye Treadwell (Loren Anderson) as an early feminist trailblazer. In the 1950s, George Treadwell has high hopes for The Drifters, a vocal group he manages. However, membership of the group changes rapidly as vocalists are conscripted, ask for more money or succumb to a weakness for alcohol. George’s wife Faye argues the song is more important than the singer and insists on copyrighting the name of the group. However, the sheer number of former group members results in copycat versions arising and, following the early passing of her husband, Faye is left to try and raise funds for a legal challenge while also raising her daughter. As Faye is a black woman in an industry and a society full of sexism and racism, the odds do not look good.
At the curtain call, it is almost surprising to see there are only six people in the cast. Loren Anderson as Faye and Jaydah Bell-Ricketts as her daughter are the only two actors to take on a single role. Miles Anthoney Daley, Ashford Campbell, Dalton Harris and Tarik Frimpong serve as The Drifters and a bewildering range of other characters. It is impressive to see the cast tackle such a task, but there are consequences: dialogue inevitably becomes stilted to ensure the names and purpose of the characters are clear, and characterisation can be broad with extreme accents. There is also a sense of over-egging a rich confection—hard to see why folk group Peter, Paul and Mary make a cameo appearance.
Director Jonathan Church does not shy away from potential shortcomings. The show’s status as a jukebox musical is cheerfully celebrated by opening with Jaydah Bell-Ricketts playing an actual jukebox. No effort is made to disguise the show being built around a legal case rather than individuals. Well, one individual—Loren Anderson scorches the stage as the indomitable Faye, confronting racism and sexism with a relentless determination.
Musical history is full of misty-eyed recollections of past great touring productions by Motown groups in which songs were sung to perfection while the artists completed complex dance moves at the same time. In The Drifters Girl that actually happens—the vocal performances are impeccable even though the cast might from time to time do the splits.
The lyrics of the songs are of the period—tending towards boy meets girl simplicity—but gain depth when used to illustrate the narrative. "Rat Race" is used to reflect the rate of attrition in the group with a roll call of former members projected onto the wall. "There Goes My Baby" becomes a cry from the heart from George to his wife. "Come On Over To My Place" ironically illustrates casual racism. Most striking, "Stand by Me" is given a radical revision to become a mission statement for Faye and a vocal showcase for Loren Anderson to close act one.
It is hard to avoid the unsavoury conclusion that the theme of The Drifters Girl is the only way to avoid being exploited is to exploit other people. Alternatively, it might be a tribute to the achievements of an individual overcoming remarkable challenges. In any case, The Drifters Girl is a tremendous display of talent belting out some great songs.
Reviewer: David Cunningham