The original stage version of Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy
was of course overshadowed by the film adaptation but a starry enough cast of James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave was assembled to bring it back to Broadway, in David Esbjornson's production which now comes to the West End. It's a platonic love story between an ageing pair, the wealthy Jewish widow whose driving has got too bad to get insured, and the black chauffeur who becomes her best friend over the next 25 years. It's probably not a great surprise that I thought this would be a good show to take my mum to; it turns out she really dislikes Redgrave and only came along to see Jones, so she was rather pleased to find out that the former would not be appearing tonight, and understudy Jenny Lee would be playing Miss Daisy. (And if you think young
people are rude, you should have heard the way the older audience members were talking to the box office staff when trying to exchange their tickets to a date when Redgrave will have returned, despite the Wyndhams' willingness to offer these exchanges.)
The look of the play is a strange mix: Esbjornson has opted for a simple staging, with the actors bringing on chairs and props to create the car where a lot of the action takes place, but this is oddly contrasted with John Lee Beatty's set, with barely-used desks, kitchen units and staircases sliding on and off the stage, perhaps for the benefit of people who like to see where their money's going. The director largely ignores them to keep things unfussy and focused on the performances, and with a play as straightforward as this I think that's the right approach. Lee gave a likeable, amusing performance tonight but with one of the star names out of action all eyes were on Jones, who didn't disappoint with his quietly dignified Hoke Coleburn liable to turn spiky. The only other cast member is Boyd Gaines as Miss Daisy's son, who does well with a role inevitably overshadowed. The story goes from 1948 to 1972, spanning many Civil Rights milestones but these are just about hinted at in the background, the central relationship is what's focused on here - the bombing of a synagogue in Atlanta is referenced mainly as a way to advance it, Miss Daisy realising some of the things she didn't think of as common factors in hers and Hoke's lives.
The play really is quite frustratingly simple at times, and the show the very definition of "low key" but I can't say it wasn't enjoyable as well. It's definitely one to take your mum to, especially if, like mine, bursting into sobs at least twice is her benchmark of a good show. And if you do
go, and they're still available, look out for the "restricted view" seats in the very back row of the Balcony which, even after booking and restoration fees, we paid just under £12 each for. The attitude to, and pricing of, restricted views really shows up the difference between different theatre groups. Delfont Mackintosh theatres tend to have reasonably good views from the higher circles anyway, but here they're offering £12 for seats where you just about miss the very top of the back projection wall, while elsewhere you'll pay more than twice as much to look at a tiny corner of the stage
.Driving Miss Daisy
by Alfred Uhry is booking until the 17th of December at Wyndham's Theatre.