A journey through troubled times

The odd couple: Hoke, played by the splendid Don Warrington, growing old with Daisy, played by Gwen Taylor. Pictures: Nicholas Dawkes 

Driving Miss Daisy

Wolverhampton Grand

***

THIS play is held in high regard by  actors because of the challenge it offers in two regards.

First, the two lead characters age 25 years in 90 minutes,  second, the play is performed as a three hander, further intensifying the performing demands (whilst reducing production costs!).

Fortunately the cast are well up to the task. Daisy is played by Gwen Taylor, her driver Hoke by Don Warrington.

Gwen Taylor has most recently been in the public eye as Anne Foster in Coronation St, but her career defining role was in the fabulous  television comedy Duty Free as Amy Pearce. 

Don Warrington found recognition for his role as Phil Smith in Rising Damp. Driving Miss Daisy is a Pullitzer prize winner , yet its strength lies in the opportunities it offers for the actors to act, rather than its profound script.

Pre Black Civil  Rights America is the back cloth to most of the story. Rather than make this an “issue” play, author Arthur Uhry neatly sidesteps the big questions to instead make it a play about personality and relationships, how they juxtapose, jostle and settle.

So the play is not quite as it seems, this is no polemic on racial equality, instead a slight affectionate exploration of two contrasting characters into old age, and it is in this way  that the play works.

The history of race relations in America is quite different in England to the deep south of the United States creating potential for the political dimension to travel poorly in a multi-racial community like Wolverhampton. But the focus on character, rather than action, sometimes to a fault, steers it clear of local bear–traps.

Taylor touchingly plays out the gradual decline of old age. Her head sinks turtle-like   into her shoulders, her movement becomes fragile- uncertainly precise, and her voice develops a reedy  thinness. Yet, although her physical powers are in retreat her spirit is not.

The set is initially disconcertingly simple, comprising a staircase and bookcase on  one side, a desk moving in and out of centre stage, and a bench on a small revolve which, when matched with a couple of chairs and a steering wheel, becomes whatever car Miss Daisy is being driven around in by Hoke. It is a back projection screen which creates the sense of time and place using archive news footage to good effect.

Ian Porter has the tricky task of playing Boolie, a ruthless businessman and Miss Daisy's slightly unsympathetic son. The role is awkward because it is an integral part of the journey that unfolds, but dramatically, can unbalance the chemistry created between the two leads. In this production, director David Esbjornson allows Boolie a more strident presence in a bold move.

A core message that skin and background may divide, but the power of the human spirit unites, is the feel-good engine of the play, along with American schmaltz which teeters just the right side of good taste, garnished with humour that Gwen Taylor clearly revels in.  

As an essay on growing old, it takes some beating. Touring plays have a tough time finding theatres prepared to take a chance against the mass appeal of musicals. It is to the credit of the Grand that they brought this production to Wolverhampton and to Julian Stoneman Associates that they brought the production to the Black Country. To 13-04-13.

Gary Londen 

And in the back seat . . .

****

THIS heart-warming play by Alfred Uhry has won many friends during its UK tour, and Black Country theatre goers are seeing just why it's been so popular before the journey ends in Wolverhampton this week.

Although it is set in Atlanta, Georgia, when civil rights and prejudice were high on the agenda, the story is not a lesson in racial equality even though the central figures are a white Jewish widow and her poor African American chauffeur.

During the 90-minutes of action, with no interval, the audience are treated to a fascinating insight into how wealthy 72-year-old Daisy Werthan at first resents her businessman son insisting she is not fit to drive herself any more following an accident.

Gwen Taylor, who recently played Anne Foster in Coronation Street, is a delight as the prickly Miss Daisy, not prejudiced but giving chauffeur Hoke Coleburn a hard time at first, though as their relationship over more than 20 years develops there is a touching scene where she pats him gently on the hand and admits: "Hoke, your are my best friend".

A superb performance, too, from Don Warrington (Philip Smith in Rising Damp) who is so convincing in the role of kindly Hoke, a veteran driver quite able to fight his own corner after being appointed by Daisy's son, Boolie (Ian Porter).

The set is simple but effective, with the car created by a wooden bench on a revolving section of the stage, a single chair for the driver and a steering wheel and column, with moving film of the areas the couple drive through projected at the rear. To 13.04.13

Paul Marston

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