Driving Miss Daisy
Julian Stoneman Associates, in association with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
The author has written this beguiling, bitter-sweet and very entertaining story of his own Jewish grandmother and her black chauffeur, and how an unexpected friendship and respect developed between them during the twenty-five years they spent from 1948 to 1973, just living their lives and ‘doing the best they can’, against the background of the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern States and the changes which gradually (very gradually) took place as the world became aware of the appalling racial inequality prevalent at the time.
She is a wealthy widow, a retired schoolteacher, he is a poor and illiterate black man, yet ultimately they are more alike than it seems at first. Both have dignity and self-respect, her attitude expecting obedience (but not always getting it), his deferential yet never subservient, and both are on the fringes of the Atlanta society, tolerated but never truly accepted.
It is son Boolie who has organised the chauffeur for his mother after she managed to demolish her own car along with that of a neighbour and the neighbour’s garage, and this independent, exasperating lady resents the suggestion that she is too old to drive and is even more horrified to find that the intended driver is black.
Not that she is prejudiced, of course not, but—“They all take things you know.” He has nothing against Jews himself but “They all stingy and cheap—so people say”. There is racial discrimination on both sides, and it takes the senseless bombing of a Jewish Temple, prompting Hoke to recount the story of the lynching he witnessed as a child, for them to realise that they are both equally the victims of bigotry.
Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones played the two characters in the London stage production last year, following their triumph in the same roles on Broadway, and here Gwen Taylor and Don Warrington bravely take over the roles with Ian Porter as son Boolie—a part he understudied in London. Theirs is a very hard act to follow and they all seemed a little nervous at the beginning, but soon the story takes over and they begin to live their parts.
Taylor’s Southern drawl might have slipped a little here and there, but she is very much the bossy schoolmarm treating her son and chauffeur as disobedient children, and Warrington, having discarded his usual cultured tones for an African-American accent, was a little difficult to hear at first, but had the intonation and expressions exactly right.
Porter beautifully conveys the attitude of a loving son trying to keep the peace between wife and mother, his exasperation at his mother’s demands reaching a peak when she accuses Hoke of stealing a tin of salmon. Before they can confront him with this ‘crime’ he produces a replacement tin—Taylor’s mortification together with Porter’s “I told you so” expression says it all.
The show originally began in a seventy-four seat theatre off-Broadway and the expected five-week run had to extend. It moved to a bigger theatre, and ran for three years before becoming the multi-award winning film starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. The film is fleshed out with more visible characters (only referred to in the play) and has the benefit of scenery and some exceptionally beautiful music by Hans Zimmer, but back to its roots the play stands alone needing little in the way of scene changes except back projections to depict venues and passage of time.
Sympathetically and unobtrusively directed again by David Esbjornson, it becomes evident that age is a great leveller and that these two really need each other in more ways than “You need a chauffeur Miss Daisy, and I sure need a job”.
Funny, moving, tender yet never over sentimental, and always stressing the comical aspects, this is a totally absorbing, entertaining show, involving the audience and worth seeing many times.
Touring to Croydon, Richmond, Bath, Malvern, Brighton, Derby and Southend.
Reviewer: Sheila Connor