The lights go down and four of the most beautiful voices you will ever hear come in a cappella one by one. The band kicks in, the harmonies ignite and the lights go up as we are treated to a mini-concert of joyously irresistible Drifters hits. This is a show that knows how to deliver a tune and a band who laid down classic grooves from Save the Last Dance for Me, Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Movies and Come on Over to My Place to Saturday Night at the Movies and Under the Boardwalk. If that’s not toe-tappinglytastic enough, they also slip in Stand by Me by former Drifters frontman Ben E King for good measure. And that’s before the Queen of British Soul herself, Beverley Knight, majestically rips into a succession of spine-tingling roof-raisers.
Knight is on magnificent form as the formidable Faye Treadwell, the pioneering black woman who managed the Drifters for over 40 years in an industry not geared to her gender or her race. Her story is told here in flashbacks to her daughter.
Every single other role is played with irresistible brio by the extraordinary Adam J Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Maud. Vocal pyrotechnics aside, they exuberantly tackle the ever-changing line- up of band members (66 over the decades), songwriters and executives, waitresses and showgirls (yes, you heard that right), and Bruce Forsyth. Again, yes, honest.
This ridiculously talented quartet slip in and out of a myriad of characters, accents and genders with enormous gusto to hugely entertaining effect. and it is always nice to see them, to see them… Well, you get the idea.
This is both a strength and a weakness. It is almost always played for laughs which is huge fun, but in one scene a succession of regional British hotel clerks turning Faye away for a variety of race-related issues plays more to the silly accents than the bigotry. The accompanying track Come On Over is resolutely upbeat and you end up clapping and laughing when the actual situation was abhorrent. Likewise, the suicide of one closeted gay Drifter is such a painfully powerful moment but barely has time to register.
Really, only Faye is somewhat fleshed out and that seems mainly rooted in some impressively zinging one-liners as she shoots down a succession of misogynists and business rivals. It makes for a slightly uneven experience which is a little hazy on actual historical accuracy. I’m not entirely convinced even her character ever truly comes alive.
The perfunctory staging of moving screens and backdrop projections is a little underwhelming. When the big finale pulls back the screen to reveal the (sensationally good) band on stage at the back, everything suddenly feels electrifying and you wish they had done it much earlier, or, in fact, for all of the many concert and performance numbers.
Ultimately, like every other jukebox musical with so many songs and too many facts to pack in, powerful social themes and personal triumphs and tragedies are skimmed over frustratingly fast. We never truly get a chance to connect with anyone, but, boy, are those musical numbers wonderful.