Driving Miss Daisy, Wyndham's Theatre, London
Monday 17 October 2011
Written to be performed by two veteran luminaries and unfolding in a succession of car trips, Alfred Uhry's 1987 play Driving Miss Daisy might be deemed the very definition of a "star vehicle".
Transferred from Broadway where it did sell-out business, David Esbjornson's revival can certainly boast stellar power, in the shape of James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave. The strength of their talent and the evident depth of their mutual respect lend moral weight to a piece which – despite its Pulitzer Prize and the Oscar-winning movie it spawned – still comes across as excessively sentimental, flimsy and evasive in its episodic treatment of the friendship that gradually develops between a cantankerous Atlanta Jewish matron and her black chauffeur during the momentous period from 1948 to 1973.
All tightly reproving mouth, blue-eyed glare and bristling testiness, Redgrave is very funny at conveying the resentment of this retired Southern school-ma'am when her son lumbers her with Hoke Colburn, a driver of colour; and her road-worthiness and her professed racial tolerance are brought into question. Triumphant in her belief that Hoke has pinched a tin of salmon, she extends the empty tin on a pair of tongs in the outflung pose of a Musketeer offering a fencing challenge and then brandishes it above her head like the Statue of Liberty's torch. When Hoke's innocence is humblingly proved, she hilariously tries to mask her mortification in the ostentatiously elegant manner with which she sweeps up the garbage can and exits, as if in the hope that a parade of social graciousness will distract from the moral gracelessness of her mistake.
The calm dignity of Jones's Hoke is an excellent foil for the agitated stubborness of Redgrave's Miss Daisy. It's a witty performance, too, wonderfully adept at slow-burn deadpan teases and at applying moral pressure (for pay rises etc) through an almost parodically steady, guilt-inducing stare. Miss Daisy's son (the likeable Boyd Gaines) is especially susceptible to this technique.
Uhry's three-hander counterpoints the thaw in relations between the central couple with the progress of the civil-rights movement in the American South. The projections that highlight this – the sign, say, that reads "This is KKK country" when Hoke drives for the first time outside his native Georgia – aren't calculated to disguise the cursory way Uhry links the personal and the political.
Again and again, though, superb acting makes up for the two-dimensional sketch-like writing.
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