This play is held in high regard by actors because of the challenge it offers in two regards. Firstly, the two lead characters age 25 years in 90 minutes, secondly, the play is performed as a three hander, further intensifying the performing demands ( whilst reducing touring costs!). Fortunately the cast are well up to the task. Daisy is played by Gwen Taylor, her driver Hoke by Don Warrington.
Gwen Taylor has most recently been in the public eye as Anne Foster in Coronation St, but her career defining role was in the fabulous television comedy Duty Free as Amy Pearce. Don Warrington found recognition for his role as Phil Smith in Rising Damp. Driving Miss Daisy is a Pullitzer prize winner , yet its strength lies in the opportunities it offers for the actors to act, rather than its profound script.
Pre Black Civil Rights America is the back cloth to most of the story. Rather than make this an “issue” play, author Arthur Uhry neatly sidesteps the big questions to instead make it a play about personality and relationships, how they juxtapose, jostle and settle. So the play is not quite as it seems, this is no polemic on racial equality, instead a slight affectionate exploration of two contrasting characters into old age, and it is as this that the play works.
The history of race relations in the American deep south is quite different in England creating potential for the political dimension to travel poorly in a multi-racial community like Wolverhampton. But the focus on character, rather than action, sometimes to a fault, steers it clear of local bear –traps.I saw only two black audience members.
Taylor touchingly plays out the gradual decline of old age. Her head sinks turtle-like into her shoulders, her movement becomes fragile- uncertainly precise, and her voice develops a reedy thinness. Yet, although her physical powers are in retreat her spirit is not.
The set is initially disconcertingly simple, comprising a staircase and bookcase on one side, a desk moving in and out of centre stage, and a bench on a small revolve which, when matched with a couple of chairs and a steering wheel, becomes whatever car Hoke is driving Miss Daisy in. It is a back projection screen which creates the sense of time and place using archive news footage to good effect.
Ian Porter has the tricky task of playing Boolie, Miss Daisy’s son a ruthless businessman and slightly unsympathetic son. The role is awkward because it is an integral part of the journey that unfolds, but dramatically, can unbalance the chemistry created between the two leads. In this production, director David Esbjornson allows Boolie a more strident presence in a bold move.
A core message that skin and background may divide, but the power of the human spirit unites, is the feel-good engine of the play, American schmaltz which teeters just the right side of good taste, garnished with humour that Gwen Taylor clearly revels in. As an essay on growing old, it takes some beating, but its single set, and lack of action narrows the profile of those to whom this will appeal. Touring plays have a tough time finding theatres prepared to take a chance against the mass appeal of musicals. It is to the credit of the Grand that they brought this production to Wolverhampton and to Julian Stoneman associates that they brought the production to the Black Country.
Driving Miss Daisy plays at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Tues 9th through to Sat 13th April