Talented performers drift through sensational songs in The Drifters Girl, a disconcerting jukebox musical that strives to tell the story of an ever-changing line-up of singers.
The story, which is a frustratingly surface-level affair, follows headstrong southern girl Faye. She marries The Drifters’ manager, George Treadwell, and then sets about transforming the fluctuating band of rhythm-and-blues vocalists into a flourishing brand. When George unexpectedly dies, Faye Treadwell finds herself fighting to be taken seriously as one of the first female African American managers in a sexist and racist industry.
Faye relays her experiences from 1954 onwards to her daughter (credited as ‘Girl’ but essentially a bare-bones outline of real-life Faye’s daughter Tina Treadwell, who was consulted throughout the musical’s writing and development process). The entire narrative is basically Faye explaining what she did and why ahead of a court case to secure copyright of the ‘Drifters’ name.
The show tasks just six cast members with transporting an audience to the era of classic soul and charting the trailblazing efforts of a strong black woman who refused to give up on the group she loved. Disappointingly, with only four men portraying a dizzying succession of singers and assorted supporting characters, trudging along on the Treadwell treadmill soon gets tedious.
Roles are switched at the drop of a hat – or the shrugging on of a jacket, the addition of a pair of glasses, the flaunting of a feathery headdress. This initially seems like an imaginative way to handle the ambiguity surrounding The Drifters’ identity. Not to mention showcase the impressive skills of the cast: they can sing, they can move, they can act, they can adopt a variety of timbres and accents. Bravo to Miles Anthony Daley, Tarik Frimpong, Dalton Harris and Ethan Davis. However, the constant chopping and changing results in random caricatures wandering in and out of Faye’s orbit. There is a distinct lack of drama or emotion to engage with.
Even Faye is two-dimensional. At the press night performance in Milton Keynes, the role of Faye Treadwell was performed by first cover Loren Anderson, who delivered some soaring vocals and wore some beautifully tailored outfits. Yet the absence of any nuanced character development or meaningful interactions means that Faye remains an enigma and the discrimination she faces is portrayed in silly, sketchy, shouty ways.
Jonathan Church’s direction ensures scenes progress swiftly. Fay Fullerton’s costumes capture the style of the period; there are lots of sharp suits accessorised with coordinating ties and glossy patent two-tone brogues. Similarly, Karen Bruce’s slick choreography means the crooning and doo-wopping men behind microphones shift their weight, swing their arms and click their fingers with the requisite casual aplomb.
Anthony Ward’s sparse set comprises textured walls of tiles, which are intermittently moved closer together to mimic a soundproof recording studio and moved further apart to produce performance venues, outdoor locations and a courtroom. Andrzej Goulding’s video designs endeavour to create interest and give the impression of more people on the stage – the effectiveness of this is unclear due to a surprisingly restricted view from a seat at the edge of the auditorium.
Some odd stereotypes are featured, along with pantomime-like references to Milton Keynes. The lack of depth is troubling for theatregoers who are not already nostalgic about the songs. The Drifters Girl seems to be pitched at ardent fans of The Drifters who are content to meander down their own memory lanes. All the hits are included, with favourites such as ‘Come On Over To My Place’, ‘Saturday Night At The Movies’, ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’, ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Under The Boardwalk’ performed in medleys and as stand-alone numbers.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes, including an interval.
*Production photography by Johan Persson.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.