The Drifters Girl
Milton Keynes Theatre
25th October 2023
Bio-musicals can be very tricky to get right, and have seen a mixed success rate with audiences. Some, like ‘Jersey Boys’, seem to run forever, while others such as ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ find their lives cut sadly short. While they’re all fuelled by the strength of their subjects’ back catalogues of hits, they can vary wildly in narrative depth, as some legendary artists have had far less dramatic lives than others. A recent additional contender to the bio-musical list is ‘The Drifters Girl’, which tells the story of the long-running soul group and Faye Treadwell, the strong black woman who was the pioneering driving force behind their success. The idea for the musical came from Treadwell’s daughter Tina, who created the show with the original West End cast (which included UK “queen of soul” Beverley Knight).
Beginning way back in the early 1950s, ‘The Drifters Girl’ sees Faye Treadwell (played on Press Night by understudy Loren Anderson, covering Carly Mercedes Dyer) telling her young daughter (Jaydah Bell-Ricketts) the story of how The Drifters were formed and all of the various line-up changes that the group went through over the years. On the brink of a lawsuit over the usage of the Drifters’ name by a rival act, Treadwell recounts how she faced sexism and racial prejudice at every turn but refused to surrender. In standing up for what she knew to be right as the group’s manager, Treadwell kept her voice, resulting in them becoming a worldwide phenomenon and being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
‘The Drifters Girl’ follows the standard format of these types of shows (“this is how we met, this is how we got famous, this is how we lost it all and made it back again…”), but director Jonathan Church delivers it in a stylish and engaging way, and showing a strong woman being the brains in a male-dominated environment does give the story a fresh take. It does start to feel a little repetitive with the seemingly never-ending revolving door of Drifters’ members, and the delivery of many of the musical numbers being in same format and style. There arguably isn’t enough plot to sustain the running time, and Ed Curtis’ book could dig deeper into its characters, but there’s enough humour to keep audiences entertained. Much of this comes from the multitude of different characters that the principal cast of four portray (Miles Anthony Daley, Ethan Davis, Tarik Frimpong and Dalton Harris), who each do a great job.
The strength of the music obviously speaks for itself, with all of the timeless hits included as well as a few more obscure ones. Chris Egan’s orchestrations sound great and the orchestra of nine (led by MD Dustin Conrad) really bring the songs to life. Karen Bruce’s slick and snappy choreography suits the music brilliantly and is performed dynamically by the leading men. A modern abstract set of geometric blocks (Anthony Ward) is a nice juxtaposition to the “golden era” of the music, and Ben Cracknell’s impressive lighting design gives the production a cool, classy feel (helped also by some nifty video design by Andrzej Goulding.
Understudying the role of Faye Treadwell on Press Night, Loren Anderson gives a capable acting turn and a nice singing voice during softer moments, but struggles with the bigger notes. Beverley Knight set her usual incredibly high standard when she performed it in London, and Anderson’s vocals do fall some way short. The four ‘Drifters’ give uniformly strong performances, individually sounding fantastic but elevating to another level still when they combine their talents as a quartet. Miles Anthony Daley’s “There Goes My Baby” is a sublime highlight among many, and special mention also needs to go to Ethan Davis, who understudied the roles of Ben E. King, Rudy Lewis and others on Press Night. Davis performed the role as a leading man and demonstrated an enviable voice full of smoky soul, particularly during the classic “Stand By Me”.
While not hugely ground-breaking among bio-musicals, ‘The Drifters Girl’ is competent enjoyable fare, and a great showcase from some fantastic music. With four fantastic leading performances, what it lacks in story it makes up for with soulful voices, and makes for an entertaining trip down Memory Lane.
‘The Drifters Girl’ runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 28th October 2023, before continuing on its UK tour.
Performance runtime 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.