The nostalgia musical is back in full force with crowd-pleasing easy listening stories that looks back to the 1950s and 60s for their inspiration. Structured around the biography of a particular band, these shows prioritise the music, offering opportunities for audiences to relive excerpts from concerts, studio sessions and TV-appearances by the Jersey Boys, Dreamgirls and now the Drifters. Slightly more than a jukebox musical, where a band or individual’s music is used to frame an unrelated narrative, these productions tend to celebrate both the art and gruelling cost of performance as fame, touring and managerial expectations to keep the money rolling in take their toll on the personal lives and stability of the individuals struggling to remember who they once were.
While there are considerable similarities with its counterparts, The Drifters’ Girl also has a slightly different approach in which it attempts to tell the story of this band partly through the changing membership in which the brand rather than its personnel are the key focus of both ownership and identity as the group attempts to move out of the R’n’B chart and into the mainstream Top 100, while it also tries to capture a rarity in these stories, the perspective of a female manager, one who struggles against sexism and racism in the development of the band and its musical direction. Faye Treadwell is the titular Drifter’s Girl and offering her perspective on a male group in a male-led music industry, fighting for recognition in a male-led justice system is an interesting angle but one the show struggles to fully maintain as it tries to balance narrative drive with musical performance – the latter wins out.
Co-created by the cast with a book by Ed Curtis, the idea is a sound one. Framed around a major court case in which the determined Faye fought for exclusive ownership of the Drifters’ name against a producer who formed a subsidiary group by reuniting ex-members, the story of how the Drifters came to be and the challenges they faced over three decades is told in flashback with Faye speaking to her young daughter in preparation for telling the same story to the Judge. It becomes, then, a personal and professional story as the unswerving manager reflects on the creation of the Drifters collective and of Faye’s own family, falling in love with and eventually marrying the Drifters’ manager and working alongside him in equal partnership to cultivate the band.
And there are lots of positives in this approach that give clear, overarching shape and direction to the story, guiding the audience through the episodic content towards a defined conclusion that adds drive to Director Jonathan Church’s production. In what is essentially a progressive, chronological approach wrapped in a flashback, the team create plenty of space for the songs that everyone has come to see, merging two kinds of musical theatre styles using the Drifters tunes.
First, there are the pure performance-based segments in which the actors recreate the band’s appearances in concert style, singing their songs as the Drifters direct to the audience with choreographed movements. This largely provides some context about where and when this particular Drifters performance has taken place, who was the lead singer of the moment, as well as the tour experience or event. The second approach gives characters (usually Faye and husband George) songs in off-stage moments that reflect their emotional state and burst spontaneously from them in place of dialogue. That balance sits a little uneasily within the show and, performances aside, the considerable success of the Drifters segments has a price, confusing the rest of the story about the depth of its female perspective.
And those Drifters performances are flawlessly managed and each number is sensationally staged. From Under the Boardwalk to Little Red Book, Kissin; in the Back Row of the Movies to Saturday Night at the Movies, There Goes My Baby and Rat Race there is flair and energy in the harmonious vocal and performance approach. Like Jersey Boys and Dreamgirls, much of this takes place in front of microphone stands with Karen Bruce’s choreography and Fay Fullerton’s unified costume design recreating that 60s group feel with matching suits, small-scale but carefully-timed doo wop movement and synchronised stylings that bring the music alive on stage.
With a cast of just five, four of whom play all of the Drifters’ members, the show explores the frequent, almost comic turnover of singers passing through the band who are drafted into the army, let go for bad behaviour or fail to meet Faye’s exacting standards in an Act One montage sequence included largely to underscore the legal argument that the brand rather than the singers is important. Names are flashed-up on the rear wall and replacements introduce themselves within Faye’s recollection of the story, but the audience isn’t expected to keep up and when that introductory roll call fades away, for the rest of the show it’s no longer clear who is in the band at any one time, and while that may cause some confusion, it isn’t meant to matter.
In fact, it may be the point as the Drifters become an entity, a quartet bigger than individuals, so as that membership changes, each actor takes the lead on a new song giving Adam J. Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Mau the opportunity to display their incredible range performing different tempos and variations in the musical style as the decades pass and the band evolves. The exactness of their performances, not in mimicry but homage to the original sound is extraordinary, sometimes playing with the song to make it a little more their own but delivering the high-quality, powerful performances we have come to expect from nostalgia musicals. And these plentiful restagings are the continual high point of The Drifters’ Girl giving the audience exactly what they wanted and expected to see.
Yet, maintaining a consistent point of view becomes problematic and while Faye is meant to be the focus, her own story feels thinly realised and hugely overshadowed by the Drifters’ numbers that steal focus from her. It doesn’t really feel as though the show is about the Drifters’ Girl at all and while those show-stopping songs are impressive, they need to be reorientated so that we see them through Faye’s eyes if the show wants her narrative voice to be the central perspective. This would mean pushing them into the background a little and looking at what Faye is doing during these moments or how she has shaped and directed the performance the band then give.
One way to do this could be to leave Faye onstage throughout these segments, assessing and reflecting on what they do, perhaps shown in conversation with technical staff in studios or TV stations about how she wants her band to be presented. She could be cutting deals for future appearances that demonstrate her ruthless, business-minded side that got and kept her in the business while evolving an internationally famous music group. With Faye so often absent, the show currently runs on what can feel like two parallel tracks – the story of the Drifters in performance and the slightly separate role Faye played in that.
The book is looking in the wrong direction and this is where further development could bolster the show and give it a stronger backbone. While Faye is given scenes where she berates the band off-stage, much of what is presented for her is a love story with George as the initially determined but green young woman gets off the bus in New York, joins the team and finds the man of her dreams. It happened but it’s not really the most interesting thing about Faye Treadwell who needs greater character depth to explore the wider questions the story raises but never really answers about her.
We aren’t told why Faye wanted to be in the music business, why did the Drifters matter so much to her and how did she really climb the ladder? Because the narrative is built around the songs and covers such a long period of time, by necessity it skips quickly over many of the events around them at the cost of Faye’s psychological portrait. We never really understand what drove her and why she sacrificed so much, including a relationship with her daughter – here portrait as cookie-cutter sweet – to keep the band going when so much was stacked against her.
The show tries to tackle the racism she faced as a black woman in the industry as well as the suspicion the band experienced as they toured the American South, involving run-ins with the police, and in a frantic UK tour where they were turned away from hotels or forced to pay upfront for their accommodation. These are fleeting scenes treated too comically that only nod to the socio-political context but could be the dark heart of a show exploring the underbelly of an industry and predominantly white audience that, as Sam Cooke notes in One Night In Miami, expected black musicians to only exist on the stage or in the segregated R’n’B chart. That Faye took all of this on as a woman is doubly admirable and while it’s clear she wasn’t a saint, The Drifters’ Girl could say so much more about this context and it feels hollow without it.
By keeping it light and continually returning to the nostalgic loveliness of the Drifters’ music, the production misses a trick, undercutting its emotional and more complex moments to quickly take the audience back to the safety and feel-good nature of the songs, blunting the very edges the show should sharpen. And this happens not just in the reactions to the band but in the staging of their personal tragedies as well, added to the story to create depth but too quickly forgotten as we drift on.
While it’s true that the band did just that, some sense of the burden of it all, the effect of constantly finding new members and how that changed the dynamic within the band would bolster a story that feels surprisingly lacklustre. How did the band members feel about each other at any given point in time, it certainly can’t be as easy going as presented in The Drifters’ Girl with the changing line-up just accepted without question. There must have been resentments, fights and more bad behaviour than we see, so how did Faye control all of that to keep the show on the road for as long as she did?
And for a musical about her it seems almost inexplicable that Faye has less than half a dozen songs in two hours and twenty minutes. Beverley Knight is spectacular in all of them, she is completely in Faye’s head and her vocals are spine-tingling, filling the auditorium with an outstanding emotional power that has made her one of the West End’s favourite leading ladies. So only imagine how great she would be if her character was better fleshed-out and given the central focus in almost every scene that she is supposed to have. Knight makes absolutely everything she can of Faye and underusing her feels like a criminal waste of her luminous talent.
The Drifters’ Girl is still in preview for another week or more but while the show will tighten up, the underlying structure won’t change. What Church has been able to do with a cast of just five adult performers is remarkable in a fast-paced production (although theatre’s a tendency to overly favour stage right will create greater restricted view issues in some parts of the house), while Antony Ward’s set design of moveable vertical and horizontal neon tubes, black panels and variegated walls has a feel for the era and the tone. This is a great idea for a nostalgic musical that will please fans of the Drifters but you can’t help feeling that the Drifters’ Girl herself could have had more bite.