Review: Driving Miss Daisy – Wyndhams Theatre

It is the moment theatre-goers dread, those ominous slips of paper in the programme and the announcement of ‘due to the indisposition of…’. When the show in question is only a three-hander and has an acclaimed international cast, the sense of foreboding is only heightened.

One also feels sorry for the understudy, doubtless nervous already but also facing an audience disappointed about the non-appearance of one of the leads, and also possibly depleted in numbers as some seek redress and exchange.

For Jenny Lee, stepping into the daunting shoes of an indisposed Vanessa Redgrave in the transfer of the Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy in the very first week of previews, the weight of expectation must be immense. It turns out however that for those who queued at the Box Office for exchanges missed a performance that made Ms Redgrave’s absence immaterial.

Alfred Uhry’s 1987 play is perhaps best known for the 1989 film adaptation but this piece works well in its original stage setting, a touching and poignant three-hander charting the relationship between elderly Southern Jewish woman, Daisy Werthan, and her African-American chauffeur, Hoke. Set in Atlanta and spanning 30 turbulent years of changing attitudes to race and class, Driving Miss Daisy manages both the epic political and social themes while also becoming deeply personal and intimate.

David Esbjornson’s production sensibly focuses on the relationship between Daisy and Hoke, with the tense relationship between Daisy and her son, Boolie, providing the catalyst for change.

It is in many ways a subtle play, looking at the shifting balance of power that age brings. To reach the far reaches of the cheaper seats it does however need big characters and while the play itself may be slight, the characters do manage to fill the space.

James Earl Jones’ Hoke is a masterclass in repression, hunched and head bowed as his boss would expect only to grow in stature and confidence as the social situation changes and his relationship develops with initially hostile Miss Daisy. Boyd Gaines as Daisy’s son is the voice of reason in the play, perhaps less fully drawn than the two other characters.

It is of course Miss Daisy herself that draws attention – a chillingly accurate look at the ravages of aging. While Ms Redgrave won plaudits for her restrained and detailed performance on Broadway, Jenny Lee more than hold her own here, a performance of immense care and thought – every motion, ever inflection showing a woman in her advancing years imbued with great pride and decorum. As her faculties fail, the sense of frustration and confusion is palpable.

With star names comes star demand for tickets and it’s understandable that producers have gone for a 4 tier theatre but, in many ways, this is a production that would be better served by a more intimate venue. In the cheaper seats, some of the more subtle moments are lost and some of the staging choices result in large sections looking at the tops of the leads’ headwear rather than facial expressions.

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