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Driving Miss Daisy – The Derby Theatre

Writer: Alfred Uhry

Director: David Esbjornson

Reviewer: James Garrington


Many people will be aware of, and have probably seen, the 1989 Oscar-winning film of Driving Miss Daisy, and may be wondering how it will translate to the stage. In fact, this is a semi-autobiographical play written by Alfred Uhry in 1987 that was translated to the cinema.

Set in Georgia during the 1950s and 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Driving Miss Daisy is the story of two people who, despite appearing to be very different, actually find they have many similarities. The real journey is not the one implied in the title, but rather one through life as their relationship moves from Mistress / Servant to what could be described as love – not the overwhelming passion of the young, but the deep comfort, respect and support that people can develop for each other only when they have been together for a long time.

Gwen Taylor is an excellent Miss Daisy, cantankerous, independent and stubborn, refusing to accept that she needs a chauffeur despite having written off her car at the age of 72. She moves steadily and convincingly from her initial rejection and resentment of Hoke through the course of the play, to the point where, 90 minutes later (with 24 years having passed) she tells him: “You are my best friend, you know that?” She is well matched by Don Warrington, a respectful but independent Hoke Coleburn. He too manages the transition beautifully as his attitude towards Daisy, initially one of subservience, becomes gradually more caring as the evening progresses. Together they deliver a masterclass in acting, with performances that display sensitivity and subtlety as the relationship between the characters develops. Particularly impressive is the way they grow old; as scene after scene unfolds they become slightly less mobile, with a limp or a shuffle where there used to be a firm walk, or a stoop where once there was a straight back, adding only a pair of spectacles or a walking stick to assist them in the process. Diction is excellent throughout, with the tricky accent and dialect of the Deep South coming across clearly to an audience that was hanging onto their every word.

The pair are well supported by Ian Porter (Boolie Werthan), Daisy’s son who recognises the need for a chauffeur and is instrumental in hiring Hoke. In some ways he reflects the attitude of the times: although he is able to treat Hoke almost as a friend in private, he feels unable to attend a Civil Rights dinner for fear it would damage his business. He is there throughout the piece, acting as a foil for the other characters as they become closer to one another.

The scenic design by John Lee Beatty helps the production to flow, allowing us to move easily from interior to exterior and back to a different interior by use of a few simple pieces of furniture. It is enhanced by clever use of projection (designed by Wendall K Harrington) which mixes ‘scene setting’ images and newsreel footage in a pleasing way. The set design also allows us to get over the obvious problem – how do we manage the car – by skilful use of a bench, a chair, a steering wheel on castors and a small revolve.

Directed with sensitivity by David Esbjornson, the gentle wit of the piece serves to accentuate the moments of poignancy. It is a journey through time, social history and relationships, and the packed house at the delightful Derby Theatre enjoyed every minute of it. Not to be missed.

Runs until 24th November 2012


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