Driving Miss Daisy (Wyndhams Theatre)

Originally published on my LiveJournal blog on 1 October 2011.

Just back from a preview of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, which has transferred from Broadway with the original revival cast – Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones, and Boyd Gaines, at frighteningly inflated prices.  More about those prices later.

Many people assume that the piece first started as the Oscar-winning film which paired Jessica Tandy with Morgan Freeman, with Dan Aykroyd as her son – but not so.  Alfred Uhry wrote the play for the stage in 1987 and although Freeman transferred with it from stage to screen, they are too very different beasts.  The theatre version has minimal sets (and some back projection, new to this production, to provide a visual memoir of people like Martin Luther King), and does not open out the story to include any other characters.  Boolie’s wife is never seen – on the screen she was given person and voice by Broadway legend Patti Lu Pone.

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones
Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones

So, at prices nudging over £100 for a stalls seat, and £48 for a decent enough grand circle spot, is this ninety-minute piece of theatre worth going to?  I had seen Vanessa Redgrave before several times, notably in Hecuba (where she was miked up, as her voice didn’t travel well to the cheap seats), and The Year of Magical Thinking (in which she played a mother grieving for the loss of a daughter, something which would tragically happen to her in real life shortly afterwards).  James Earl Jones was last in London for an all-black revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which he was a dynamic and memorable Big Daddy, so I knew what to expect here and knew he would be good in the role of Hoke, the poor coloured chauffeur who is engaged to drive around the rich Jewess Miss Daisy.  Boyd Gaines was a bit of an unknown quantity – I know he has done a lot of Broadway work, but he is less revered here; he does well in a small part.

Driving Miss Daisy felt old-fashioned even in 1987, a product of a bygone age where civil liberties were beginning to change and the accepted dynamic between those of different religions and colours were shifting to something from another world – the action within the short span of the play moves from 1948 to 1972, and we see Daisy and Hoke age, grow and evolve during that time.  It is a thoughtful play, well-acted, and would probably be worth £50 of your money for a decent seat up close.  However, I have to mark it down for the pure greed of those ticket prices.

I wasn’t overly amused or touched, and I feel that Ms Redgrave (who was indisposed a night or so ago and looks frail even at curtain call) is perhaps not the right casting for the smart, quick and fiercely proud Miss Daisy – but she and her fellow stars have the requisite spark, and it is rare to see true theatre legends live before you.  I’m glad I went – just don’t expect to be blown away as you would be with some of the productions currently running in the West End.  This production provides Leicester Square with a quiet hour and a half – and the couple next to me this afternoon, who saw it on Broadway and then came to London on holiday purely to see it again are testament to its lasting star quality.