*Fabulous older woman alert!*
Vanessa Redgrave in Driving Miss Daisy: a review
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It may well be a story immortalised in Hollywood's hall of fame (the 1988 film version starring Morgan Freeman won the Best Picture Oscar); nevertheless Driving Miss Daisy was always originally intended for the stage.
Productions of Alfred Uhry's 1986 masterpiece now span four decades, and this Broadway-transfer directed by David Esbjornson is surely up there with the best of them; and credit for this can be bestowed almost squarely on its two iconic leads – national treasure Vanessa Redgrave, still at the top of her game at 74, and American stage veteran James Earl Jones, better known to some as the voice of The Lion King's Mufasa and Star Wars' Darth Vadar.
Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the story revolves around 72-year-old Jewish widow Daisy Werthan (Redgrave), a retired teacher who is persuaded by her son Boolie (Boyd Gaines) to hire Hoke Coleburn (Earl Jones), an African-American chauffeur, after writing off her car in a serious crash. Her early stoicism and stubbornness – at face value, typical Redgrave fodder - at receiving help is initially suggested to be due to prejudice, something she strongly denies. Ultimately though, the pair become friends; indeed Earl Jones' is the kind of downtrodden yet charismatic everyman it would be impossible not to befriend: the warmth of his voice – perfectly suited to the wise and lovable Mufasa and in jarring contrast to the harsh and impersonal Darth Vader – definitely translates here. Beyond that, Earl Jones is able to communicate his character's silent struggle (as the story's set between 1948 and 1973, the Civil Rights Movement makes for a muted backdrop) often without saying a word; "Yes'm" being a frequent utterance that shows Hoke's delicate understanding of Miss Daisy's difficult nature. We see her reticence melt away however, with Redgrave comically highlighting whenever Miss Daisy realises she has been in the wrong.
As their professional relationship blossoms into something deeper and more meaningful, their friendship highlights the racial politics of the time, acting as a metaphor for how individuals and their actions made such a big difference in the fight for change. As author Uhry explains in a recent interview, "What I really tried to write about were three people in a tumultuous era who just lived their day-to-day lives and tried to do the best they could. They didn't do hugely noble deeds, but they made things better." Furthermore, the pair paint a picture of how a friendship can breathe new life in to old age.
Redgrave marks the passing of 20 years of Miss Daisy’s life remarkably well and is the source of some great laughs throughout the performance. While her accent may not be the perfect southern drawl expected of Miss Daisy, she seems completely at one with the role. Although less significant, the mother-son relationship rounds off the quasi family unit, with moving moments also taking place between Boolie and Hoke. Gaines' Four Tony Awards and theatre experience are well reflected in his performance here.
Esbjornson has directed a simple story, produced without bells or whistles. The results could have been too understated for their own good, however the end result is so brilliant, the central relationship so genuine, you almost double take at the bow upon the return to reality. The huge stage presences of both Redgrave and Earl Jones and their sweet chemistry are the real success of Driving Miss Daisy, a touching drama with a comical twist and roots in an important chapter of contemporary history.
Driving Miss Daisy is at The Garrick, Charing Cross Road until 17 December, for details visit the official website.
Words: Jamie Tabberer