The Drifters’ Girl

May 3 2024 | By | Reply More

★★★☆☆    Stories still unsung

Edinburgh Playhouse: Tue 30 April – Sat 4 May 2024
Review by Tom Ralphs

The Drifters Girl, at the Playhouse this week as part of a UK tour, provides plenty of Drifters hits, hung around the story of Faye Treadwell, who managed the group up until 2001.

For anyone who finds the Sugarbabes line-up changes hard to follow, a quick look at the history of The Drifters will tell you they were mere novices when it came to a revolving door membership.

Since forming in 1953 they have had more than 60 different vocalists and several more members who have come and gone in different variants of the band. Which perhaps makes it inevitable that The Drifters Girl focuses on the woman behind the band rather than the band itself.

Carly Mercedes Dyer as Faye Treadwell and Miles Anthony Daley as George Treadwell. Pic: The Other Richard

Ed Curtis’s book makes Faye Treadwell its central character. It was Faye with her soon-to-be husband, George, who took on the management of an early iteration of the band in the 1950s – when they were an R&B group of the kind that seldom troubled the mainstream US charts. The couple turned them into an international phenomenon renowned for a string of soulful classics such as Save The Last Dance For Me and Saturday Night at The Movies.

A brand as much as a band, it was the songs rather than the singers that mattered. A string of performers including Ben E King – who would go on to be etched into music history as the voice behind Stand By Me – departed or were dismissed for a variety of reasons.

Therein lay the foundations of a subsequent lawsuit over who owned The Drifters name which frames this musical, but also, therein lie the problems that beset it.

skims the surface

There is enough material in the group and Treadwell’s history to fill a long running returning series. To condense it into a two hour show with songs inevitably means that the musical only skims the surface of all that lies behind it. There is seldom any space for characters to develop and even less time for some of the shows themes, such as the racism and misogyny Treadwell faced as the only black female record promoter of the time, to be explored in any depth.

Miles Anthony Daley, Tarik Frimpong, Tré Copeland-Williams, Ashford Campbell, as The Drifters. Pic: The Other Richard

Carly Mercedes Dyer gives a strong performance as Treadwell, capturing the belligerent hard-nosed business woman never afraid to stand up for herself whilst also acknowledging the obstacles that wear her down and reveal her vulnerability. However, Dyer and Jaydah Bell-Ricketts, as Girl, aside all of the remaining cast members play multiple roles, often as a new member of the band replacing a band member they have just portrayed.

The brevity of some of these means that they appear more as caricatures than characters. Tarik Frimpong’s portrayals of original vocalist Clyde McPhatter and Lover Paterson, the promoter who would go on to issue the lawsuit, both fall into this trap to an extent.

The worst example of stereotyped reductionism comes in the characters of Roger and Roger, played by Daniel Haswell and Matthew Dawkins. Representing the English producers and writers responsible for returning the band to the UK charts in the 1970s, they are the upper-class equivalents of Dick Van Dyke’s Mary Poppins character when it comes to authenticity.


Elsewhere, the stories of some of the more complex people who passed through the band, such as Ruby Lewis, played by Ethan Davis who boasts the best vocals of the four cast who play band members, who died in 1964 aged 27, are glossed over. Moreover, the portrayal of Treadwell never questions the ruthlessness of her and her husband when it came to discarding band members, showing little understanding or sympathy for the reasons why they may have fallen briefly off the rails.

Ashford Campbell, Tré Copeland-Williams, Tarik Frimpong, Miles Anthony Daley as The Drifters. Pic: The Other Richard

This is more the result of the amount of material and history that the show crams in, and the decisions of director Jonathan Church, rather than the actors themselves, who all cope well with the constant switching and try to make distinctions between characters whenever there is scope to do it.

The production and design team also imaginatively manage the task of covering at least twenty five years over the course of the show. Fay Fullerton’s costume design tracks the changes in fashion and marks the transition between different eras of the band with great success.

extra element

Anthony Ward’s set design fills multiple roles from setting mood, to setting time, location and, when it combines with Andrzej Goulding’s video design, supporting Karen Bruce’s choreography. It adds an extra element to dance routines that switch from individualistic to micromanaged to ensure band members never take an unsynchronised step out of turn.

It’s a musical that is more about the music than the story, which is fine if you are primarily interested in hearing the songs. But frustrating when there is such a fascinating and rich story waiting to be mined. At the end of the evening, Faye Treadwell’s story remains largely in the background, just as it has always been.

Running time: two hours and 15 minutes (including one interval)
Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA. Phone booking: 0844 871 3014.
Tue 30 April – Sat 4 May 2024
Tue – Sat: 7.30pm; Mats Wed, Sat: 2.30pm
Tickets and details: Book here.

The Company of The Drifters Girl. Pic: The Other Richard


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