My second jukebox musical! And even better, a £5 seat — thanks Southampton Council e-newsletter code! No idea what to expect —turned out it was perfect.
Wrapped around the songs (much like Ain’t Too Proud, The Jersey Boys and so many more), this is a jukebox musical with a difference. The difference is that the Drifters were a vocal group managed by a woman, Faye Treadwell, who had to be extra tough in a world which didn’t expect women, and especially black women, to be anything more than groupies, girlfriends or hangers on.
The production is immaculate — although the cast is small, the story is framed by Treadwell’s daughter getting her Momma to flashback to her life with the Drifter’s. The daughter (possibly Tina) is a dancing, clapping, enthusiast, and her Momma’s cheerleader as well as challenger. Jaydah Bell-Ricketts in this role was charming. The staging too fills the space and stops the cast feeling too isolate or adrift on a stage meant for bigger numbers. A subtle use of some filmed footage adds some context as time passes.
We’re in do-wop territory as the band croon some fantastic tunes, with immaculate styling. In a nice touch, we chart the years through Faye’s changing fashions, as well as the band’s flares and donkey jackets. There are some power house names here too — Ben E. King and Nat King Cole. Yes, ‘Stand By Me’ makes an appearance!
Faye Treadwell encounters Nat King Cole (immaculate in a white tuxedo) over a spar of words for an empty chair. Here she meets George Treadwell and follows him (and The Drifters), only to find out awkwardly that he’s already married. But she puts on a strongly defensive professional front — she’s come here to manage, not to flirt. Eventually George’s marriage breaks down and ends in divorce, he re-marries to Faye, and they dual manage. Faye has an incredibly tough time, having to endlessly prove herself as a woman, a female manger/promoter in the music industry and at points to choose between her daughter and her profession. Nonetheless she fights for and gets respect.
Equally tough are some of the issues the songs wrap around — racism, sexuality, sexism and the Draft. Faye ends up having to fight a court case against another band also calling themselves The Drifters to do this. In order to achieve this, escape expensive legal battles she can’t afford in the meantime and raise the Drifters flagging fortunes, she takes them off on a tour…to the UK. Some of the top notch gigs they played were risible as they flashed past — Morecombe!!! This was also the 1970’s when the UK was in a long-term love affair with blues, soul, all things American — even creating its own versions through Northern Soul. It was also incredibly socially and culturally racist — the various encounters Faye Treadwell has at hotels are horrible, (although presented in a seaside postcard comedy manner). Equally horrific is seeing ‘No Blacks, No dogs, No Irish’ posted up at the back. This was common place only 50–60 years ago. Comparatively it is a different kind of systematic horror to the embedded structural racism that The Drifters encounter as they tour through the Deep South, where they are almost hunted as suspected criminals. Additionally there was the casual sexism — heading Faye disrespected as a bird when she pushes for the recording vocals to be mic’d in the right way in a UK studio, or in how she’s treated in hotel lobbies. One made me gasp — it was shocking. But she kept on pushing through all this with the goal in sight — getting The Drifters back where they (and their music) belonged.
Less horrific was seeing Bruce Forsyth brought back to life for Live at the London Palladium — with some more clued up members of the audience echoing his catchphrase ‘Nice to see you, to see you…’ with a ‘Nice’… Though as we look at him from the back it took me a while to work out who he was even meant to be. It was the ‘70’s so I was more a-gawk at the flared suits!
Endurance is the name of the game here. The Drifters drift in and out as they are variously drafted, replaced, unreliably wobble off and more in a humourous way. More a brand than a band, the Treadwells are the consistency here in promoting the vocal band style — until George Treadwell suddenly dies leaving Faye a widow, a mother and a woman manager in a hard world. She gets some fantastically belty Tina style tunes — including one which she sings to her daughter as she has to leave her behind to take the group to London, and then repeats to herself almost as a comfort. Whilst it’s hard not to insert Beverley Knight here, Carly Mercedes Dyer gives her all during Faye Treadwell’s heartfelt songs.
Again there are all those songs that you don’t know are Drifters songs — so be prepared to learn! ‘Kissin’ At the Back Seat of the Movies (which I seem to know under a false title of Saturday Night at the Movies, who cares what picture you see etc.)…’Under the Boardwalk’, ‘Come On Over to My Place’, ‘You’re More Than A Number In My Little Red Book’, ‘In The Land of Make Believe’, ‘Sweets For My Sweet’, ‘Harlem Child’ and more…
My favourite moment, apart from Faye’s lyrical belting numbers, the flares and the rotating vinyl visuals as a ‘fire curtain’, was the outrage of an audience member — the two Rogers who masterminded the Drifters UK comeback tour were not upper class posh twits in bowler hats lost from Jeeves and Wooster episodes, but from Bristol! In a show that can do Brum and Liverpool accents, Bristolian (Brizzle) apparently is not possible. Shame on them! Did love the car moment also— when luggage is turned into a car drive in the pouring rain!
Throughout perfection was the order of the day — mixing energy, a range of songs, slick dance moves, tough social themes and a woman trying to forge her way in the music industry, story, staging and songs blend together seamlessly. Some nice prop changes too as band members jacketed and unjacketed, danced off and on, and kept singing off-side as part of the story unfolded. There is humour too, such as the remaining Drifters donning fluffy headbands to form a backing group for Faye at one point. Uniquely as well as celebrating the achievements of a band, we are equally celebrating a woman, and the love of mother and daughter.
Reading here, there were a LOT of Drifters — The Drifters — Wikipedia