TThe idea behind this musical is to show the powerful female force that has led the all-male vocal group the Drifters. Faye Treadwell became one of the first prominent African American women to enter music management and led the group to greatness with business acumen and determination.
The music for the show is a triumph – how can you not be with the all-powerful voice of Beverley Knight? There are four other amazing voices in band members Adam J Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry, and Tosh Wanogho-Maud. Their covers of songs such as Under the Boardwalk, Save the Last Dance for Me, and Sweets for My Sweet are a reminder of the band’s vocal heritage and timeless appeal.
But this show, directed by Jonathan Church, relies too much on this catalog of songs, compromising the narrative journey and emotional strength. Ed Curtis’ book features bite-sized scenes with crisp, bland sound bites. We meet Faye when George Treadwell, the group’s manager, offers her a new path. “I only answer mine on the phone,” she told him, refusing to be his secretary. She became co-manager, his wife and finally sole manager after her death in 1967.
Knight wows us with every issue and there’s a particularly inventive take on Ben E King’s Stand By Me. Her character faces off against a sexist industry that demeans and pats her on the butt, recreates the group as a brand (“like the Yankees”) and secures the rights to the Drifters’ name in a major court case.
But much of her personal history – including her life before she met George – is ignored. While she intermittently talks about her past to her daughter (Savanna Musoni), it is too obviously a narrative device and it feels strange to never know Faye, despite being so present on scene.
The show dizzily traverses the group’s formations (unsurprisingly given that it had more than 60 members over 60 years). It’s a relief when you get to the four core members running this show but they never feel distinct in themselves. However, Bernard, Callender, Henry and Wanogho-Maud bring an irresistible charisma to the songs.
A desk is often moved onto stage with Faye or George behind it, suggesting that this is a production more preoccupied with business decisions than emotional drama. Racial discrimination is addressed, both in the southern states of the United States and in Britain when Treadwell faces the ‘No Dogs No Blacks No Irish’ era, but these scenes are presented in brief sketch.
The show at least looks part of the party with its ultra-stylish costumes and bespoke dresses (Knight’s wardrobe, designed by Fay Fullerton, is to die for). Anthony Ward’s sleek ensemble, lit by Ben Cracknell, combines with Andrzej Goulding’s video design to support the aesthetic of a music video or concert.
For fans of the Drifters, the music itself may be enough, but for those who come to it, the story of this show is neither convincing nor clear enough.