Last night The Drifters — or at least the current incarnation of the 1950s pop singing troupe, co-founded by George Treadwell in 1953 and whose legacy was then continued by his wife Faye after his death in 1967 — appeared at the Gywn Halls in Neath; tonight they will be at the Regal Theatre in Redruth, and then tomorrow at the Wyllotts Theatre in Potters Bar. All a bit of a far cry from the Sunday Night at the London Palladium, where they were introduced by Bruce Forsyth in 1974.
And yet their story is simultaneously being replayed in the West End’s latest jukebox recreation The Drifters Girl, which — like Jersey Boys playing just down the street from the Garrick Theatre across Trafalgar Square — frames their songs within a biographical story of the tenacious Faye Treadwell’s attempts to maintain the integrity of the brand as opposed to the band, with the show several times reminding us of her declaration, “The Drifters are like the Yankees. The players may change but
there’ll only ever be one New York Yankees.”
They have, effectively, become a tribute band to themselves — with over 60 members making up their membership over the last 60 years. Here, an ace line-up ofAdam J Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Maud variously play different versions of some of them, alongside Beverley Knight in the title role of Faye Treadwell.
So this slick tribute to a tribute band isn’t exactly necessary, given that you can still see the band itself, but Jonathan Church’s production packages their well-known repertoire efficiently and enjoyably, including such ever-greens as “Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Movies’, ‘Save the last dance for me’ and ‘There Goes my First Love.’ They are folded within a book by Ed Curtis that perfunctorily replays brief scenes from Treadwell’s biography and battles with rival promoters, in a show that is co-created by its five principal cast members (according to the billing on the programme’s title page).
With designer Anthony Ward providing light bars that move vertically and horizontally around the stage to define different spaces, plus more literal representations of a recording studio and management office, supplemented by Andrzej Goulding’s video designs, this is standard issue bio-musical territory. What elevates it, like Tina (the Tina Turner tribute show currently running both in the West End and on Broadway), is the title role performance from the ever-formidable Beverley Knight, one of the most soulful voices on the British pop scene, who has — since she stepped into Whitney Houston’s shoes for the musical version of The Bodyguard — become a major player in musicals that have also included stints in Memphis and Cats.
Alongside the recently opened Get Up! Stand Up! — the Bob Marley bio jukebox now playing at the Lyric (where The Drifters Girl was coincidentally originally due to open in 2020) that I reviewed here last month — it’s good to see another celebration of black talent on a London stage. It is contributing to diversifying a West End musical landscape that may soon see a tribute show to the all-white Osmonds joining the all-white Jersey Boys.