Book: Ed Curtis
Director: Jonathan Church
You’ve heard of The Drifters. An iconic soul group, their biggest hits are catchy enough that, even if you haven’t heard of them, you’ve almost certainly tapped your foot along to Under the Boardwalk, Save the Last Dance for Me or Saturday Night at the Movies. One name you’re bound to never have heard of, though, is Faye Treadwell. An African American woman in a white man’s industry, Treadwell was largely responsible for the band’s enduring success. Her sharp mind, and sharper mouth, enabled her to keep together a band with a bad habit of breaking apart. The life of this formidable figure is a ripe subject for a magical musical, and The Drifters Girl delivers exactly that.
The Drifters were, unfortunately for Faye Treadwell, perfectly named. None of the members could last very long – some were sucked up by the draft, others were too ambitious to work as a team, and others still got caught up in dangerous habits. As a result, the characters of this musical chop and change quicker than a jukebox changes tunes. The genius gambit here, though, is the small cast – just five actors make up the core cast, transitioning seamlessly from role to role throughout. This is an impressive feat in and of itself – the performers change their mannerisms, accents, tone of voice and costumes, sometimes in a matter of seconds. By limiting the cast in this way, director Jonathan Church preserves the sense of this ever-changing group as a continuous entity (Treadwell compares the group with the New York Yankees throughout the show – you can change the individual players, but “there’s only ever one New York Yankees”).
It’s important that this group feels like a cohesive unit, because much of the show’s drama comes from legal battles over ownership rights to the band’s name. Many ex-Drifters drift away from the band, only to claim the name as their own, and take Treadwell to court over the rights to the songs. Copyright infringement lawsuits might not seem like the most compelling material for a musical on paper, but The Drifters Girl makes the character of Faye Treadwell so compelling that every complication is fraught with tension, and every victory cause for celebration.
Given the critical importance of Treadwell in pulling not just the Drifters, but this musical together, whoever takes on the role has an unenviable task ahead of her. On top of that, current performers are following in the footsteps of soul-singing legend Beverley Knight. But boy, does Carly Mercedes Dyer deliver. A strong-willed, sarcastic and sophisticated character, Treadwell comes bursting to life in Dyer’s performance, bellowing through ballad after ballad, regularly giving goosebumps. A particular highlight is a reconfiguration of Ben E. King’s biggest hit Stand By Me, which becomes a beautiful, heart-rending showstopper when combined with Dyer’s powerful voice and stage presence.
This show covers a lot of ground. In two hours, there’s the full story of a long-lasting band, through multiple different formations, stopping along the way to depict the dramas and unique character of some of the most memorable members. Sometimes the whirlwind pacing makes it hard to emotionally connect with the characters, but the sheer charm of every performer, the slick, sharp script and the consistently creative staging soon pulls investment right back in. Visual comedy abounds, to the point where tiny dancing gestures elicit big laughs, and there’s not a single wasted moment across the two hour runtime. The geometrical patterns of the set, based on the interior of a studio recording booth, add a unique flavour to the visuals here too, and the lighting, which doubles up as a bar at one point, is always fittingly glamorous.
Riotous, hilarious, and propelled by powerful performances, The Drifters Girl really is some kind of wonderful.
Runs until 18th November 2023