Driving Miss Daisy

Malvern Festival Theatre

*****

ALFRED Uhry's semi-autobiographical play about the growing bond between a wealthy Atlanta widow and her poor black driver is the gentlest of comedies.

But it is also a love story, not in the great, Gone With the Wind romantic sense, but in the way people can find respect and affection in each other which grows into a true friendship. It is a story which takes us from 1948 to 1972 which, in the USA and in Georgia and the Deep South in particular, is also a journey through the civil rights movement.

Along the way are significant moments, not just for the characters on stage but milestones in social history, such as when the Jewish Miss Daisy's temple is bombed and suddenly black and Jew find a common bond as victims of right wing hate, or when Miss Daisy goes to a Martin Luther King Jnr tribute dinner but, after her son Boolie Werthan refuses to go for business reasons, she still cannot bring herself to ask her driver Hoke Coleburn, who is now her friend. But times and attitudes are changing, she is a rich, white, Conservative widow supporting the black leader of the civil rights' movement and she  . . . almost . . . invited her black driver to join her.

The final scene with Miss Daisy, in her 90s and as cantankerous as ever – one of her good days as Hoke told us – in a nursing home being helped to eat by Hoke, who she tells is her best friend, is both touching and poignant. The odd couple have grown old together.

Gwen Taylor, who gives a wonderful performance as Miss Daisy

Miss Daisy is 72 when the play opens. She was born in 1876 just 11 years after the end of the American Civil War. Gwen Taylor, who is 73, is wonderful as Miss Daisy who is independent, awkward, illogical and, when her son hires her Hoke as a driver, stubborn as a mule. She manages the slow transition from resentment to friendship with Hoke in a measured and imperceptible way as 24 years are packed into 90 minutes.

With her all the way is Don Warrington, a mere youngster at 61 as Hoke. We are used to Warrington's beautifully clipped Oxford accent but here he is an illiterate black Atlanta driver and like Miss Taylor, his southern accent never wavers, nomsm.

This is the 50s and 60s in the Deep South where subservience is the norm, yesm, but we do get flashes of independence such as when Hoke wants to stop the car to relieve himself and is told he has to wait and should have gone when they filled up with fuel. An angry Hoke tells Miss Daisy that coloureds were not allowed to use the rest rooms and storms off into the bushes telling her he is not a dog, “I am a man”  – a rallying cry of the civil rights movement.

Warrington handles the delicate balance between Hoke's independence and subservience well and perhaps most impressive is the way that Miss Daisy and Hoke gradually age, the slow stiffening of limbs, the gradual droop of the shoulder, the more gentle, more careful pace of walking – no mean feat to stretch it over an hour and half.

Keeping it all together is Boolie, played by Ian Porter with a James Stewart sense of timing and laconic remarks as he runs a business and tries, when he is allowed to, to order his mother's life.

Three performers who from the minute they walk on the stage are totally believeable and who never let the mask of theatre slip once.

 Boolie's telling line is when he tells his mother why he could not go to the Martin Luther King dinner because of the ways it could affect his business if he was seen to be supporting civil rights, siding with the cloureds. He can hire and even treat Hoke as a friend behind the curtain of family life but has to be a closet liberal when it comes to business.

It is difficult to comprehend the prejudice that existed against black people in the Southern States – in the 70s I stood on the streets of New Orleans as a Ku Klux Klan march went though; it was eerie and frightening, complete silence -  and even though segregation was banned by law in the Deep South there were still restaurants and even lunch counters where black people were discouraged and, to avoid trouble, knew not to go.

Don Warrington gives a memorable portrayal of driver Hoke

This is one of those unusual plays, the recent tour of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is another, which started life as a play but only entered the public consciousness as a film, in this case an Oscar winning feature film with Jessica Tandy as Miss Daisy and Morgan Freeman as Hoke.

The danger is that it is seen as a play cashing in on a film when in fact it is returning to its spiritual home on the stage with a wonderfully simple set from John Lee Beatty which gives us a home, an office and a simple car with tables and chairs gliding in an out and the car swivelling around corners and into parking lots.

 To add to the flexibility the stage is broken up into different areas and scenes with lighting, designed by Humphrey McDermott - the power of light on a stage should never been forgotten and then as a backdrop we have a huge video wall with images designed by Wendall K Harrington.

The growing use of video projection can, as in this case, enhance a performance with newsreel clips and visuals rather like a documentary, setting the scene with dates or illustrating locations such as the Supermarket Piggly Wiggly.

Despite the story being slow and gentle David Esbjornson's sensitive direction keeps up a decent pace which is essential with no interval (go before you go in as my old mother used to tell me). A 90 minute one act play is a bit of a slog if the director allows it to drag at all but no one was looking at watches or shuffling in their seats come the end - a tell-tale sign the audience has had enough – although a few knees were creaking, including mine, when people got up to leave. That is what age does to you.

Beautifully measured performances, sensitive direction and a sympathetic set and lighting make life's journey with Miss Daisy a real pleasure. This is memorable theatre that deserves to be seen. To 10-11-12.

Roger Clarke 

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