The Drifters Girl at the Garrick review: Great music but this jumbled jukebox story is painfully clunky

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Amari Brown and Beverley Knight in The Drifters Girl  (Johan Persson)
Amari Brown and Beverley Knight in The Drifters Girl (Johan Persson)

Soul diva Beverley Knight and four male co-stars deliver barnstorming versions of a host of Drifters hits, from Money Honey to Under the Boardwalk, in this high-energy, admirably compact, but distinctly odd show. Like Tina and Jersey Boys it’s a mixture of eulogistic biography and jukebox musical, but the life celebrated here isn’t the artists’ but their manager’s.

Faye Treadwell (Knight) was a hard-nosed, pioneering black businesswoman in the institutionally racist, sexist 1950s American music industry. Alongside her husband George, then alone after his sudden death, she crafted a barrier-shattering brand, not a band. The Drifters lasted 60 years, transitioned from the R&B to the Hot 100 pop chart and ended up in the White House. They also got through 60 members, Treadwell likening the trademarked institution to the New York Yankees. Breakaways like Ben E King were sued if they tried to trade on past association.

An extraordinary woman, clearly: but it’s odd to have a musical celebrating the disposability of creatives. Particularly as, here, performance is everything. A quartet of male musical theatre stalwarts - Matt Henry, Tosh Wanogho-Maud, Tarinn Callender and Adam J Bernard - belt out note-perfect versions of wonderful songs and play several Drifters each.

They also play all the other parts, from Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun to Bruce Forsyth. Inevitably, this leads to some cartoonish characterisation, especially when they’re playing British record execs and hotel clerks. Or women.

 (Johan Persson)
(Johan Persson)

There’s a constant conflict between the adroit and the clumsy in Jonathan Church’s production. The staging is pleasingly simple, with a kaleidoscopic set of neon tubes, textured walls and video screens from Anthony Ward and well-drilled doo-wop dance routines from Karen Bruce. But oh dear, Ed Curtis’s script is awful, full of clunking exposition and bathos.

The framing concept is that Faye is explaining the Drifters’ history to her young daughter: the business battles, lawsuits, the early death of gay lead singer Rudy Lewis, and her own shortcomings as a mother. Weirdly, the songs slot more neatly into this thumpingly obvious arc of adversity, regret and eventual triumph than in most compilation musicals. It should be noted that this show is the brainchild of Faye’s daughter Tina, and that the five adult actors are credited as co-creators. So maybe Curtis isn’t entirely to blame for the shortcomings in the story.

Ultimately, though, this show depends on the quality of the music. As an actor, Knight is passably authoritative, angry and anguished as Faye, but when she transitions into full-throated song, time seems to stop. Her four male co-stars deliver immaculate performances of Sweets for My Sweet, Stand By Me and the furious Rat Race, unselfishly swapping the spotlight and the vocal pyrotechnics. Faye Treadwell’s story is worth telling: but maybe the Drifters story is all about the unsung artists after all.

Garrick Theatre, to 26 March; nimaxtheatres.com

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