Derek Griffiths and Siân Phillips in Driving Miss Daisy presented by Theatre Royal Bath Productions. Photo: Nobby Clark
The great thing about reviewing for Sardines is that you get to watch shows you've heard of, and know you probably should have seen, but that you might not normally hear about or get round to going to. Driving Miss Daisy is one of those shows.
I'd heard of it and knew it was a famous film (it actually won four awards at the 1990 Oscars, including Best Picture), but I didn't know much more than that. I guessed it probably involved a car and some driving but then again, a play's title doesn't always give you the right clues to its plot...
Written by Alfred Uhry, a German-Jewish man born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1936, the tale is based on the true relationship of his grandmother, Lena Fox, and her black chauffeur, Will Coleman. Set between 1948 and 1973, the story is played out against a backdrop of great social change in America. Segregation, the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a dream" speech are all alluded to in some way or another as we see our protagonists' relationships grow.
The stage was rather big for a three person cast, and to start with, I thought the space wasn't being used very well. A single bench and low coffee table were placed in the middle with a lot of dead space around them. I've said it before but I'm always worried when people aren't mic'ed in a fairly large theatre, and I thought the bench was placed a little too far back for being able to hear well. But I soon came to realise that the set was actually quite cleverly designed, with hidden cupboards, a sideboard that became a desk and even a grave with flowerbed appearing at one point, plus I didn't have any problems hearing every word. Everything was also very white (perhaps a visual representation of the deeper issues of the time?) but as the play took shape, I didn't miss the extra furniture or set that could've filled the space. As my friend said to me during the interval, this is a play where not a great deal necessarily happens in term of dramatic plot points, but it is all about the characters.
However, subtly, a lot does happen. Miss Daisy (who crashes her car at the beginning, writing it off and destroying a two-car garage at the same time, whilst keeping her glasses intact) doesn't want a driver, let alone a "coloured" one. But her son Boolie, played by the very watchable Teddy Kempner, insists. As the story gets going, and Hoke Colburn (Derek Griffiths) becomes a staple fixture in Daisy's life, you see their relationship played out over weeks, months, years and the ever changing seasons.
As we were watching, I knew I recognised Griffiths' distinctive voice, and I was sure it was from my childhood. And of course, when I checked the programme, it all fell into place: Play School! A blast from my (very distant) past, it instantly made me warm to him. I loved his character from the moment he entered and thought he played the part with genuine sincerity. Kempner as Boolie was also a character you enjoyed watching. He brought out the right level of humour in all the comedy lines he delivered, which were usually during exasperated conversations with his mother.
That brings me to Siân Phillips, a grand dame of the theatre with a CV as long as your arm. I have to say, for a long time, I didn't really enjoy watching her character, but I think this was actually the point. She was a cantankerous old woman who, from the start, would bicker, answer back and generally think that her way was always the right way. Next to the two, kind-hearted, well meaning gentlemen, she was very jarring. But as the years melted away, and as Daisy became a very old woman, she softened. She teaches Hoke to read; she gives him a handwriting book on Christmas Day (although it's definitely "not a Christmas present!"); and she almost lovingly feeds him coffee and sandwiches during a long drive.
Phillips' portrayal of ageing was fully believable and I actually felt like she was fading before my eyes. There were increasingly touching moments between her and Hoke, and the play finishes with him feeding her Thanksgiving pie as she smiles up at him.
I would say the play was a little rough around the edges on its opening night, particularly the fact that you could see shadows off stage when people were getting changed or waiting to come on, which was a little distracting. One of my only major disappointments of the show was the car, or lack of one. This wouldn't have been so bad had there not been a huge garage door at the back of the stage, lulling you into a false sense of security that something big and magnificent was hiding behind it. There just had to be a car in there I thought, or at least the front of one, and I was excited to see it. But sadly, all it housed was... a steering wheel. I know, I know... it's all about using your imagination and suspending disbelief. And as we trundled along with Daisy and Hoke, I could see it forming before my eyes. But just a little car would've been great.
Teddy Kempner in Driving Miss Daisy. Photo: Nobby Clark