FringeReview UK 2017
This production from Theatre Royal Bath directed by Richard Beecham features high-clinkered wood set by Simon Kenny. Natasha Chivers conjures lighting. We’re treated to stabs of period music in Jon Nicholls’ through-composed score. Till September 23rd.
This accidental classic returns to Theatre Royal, Brighton in its thirtieth year. Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy was last here in 2012. This production from Theatre Royal Bath directed by Richard Beecham is an altogether more lavish production with performances to match the high-clinkered wood set by Simon Kenny, panoramic, creamy Art Deco curves neatly apertured and inset with marvels like a garage, phone booth and at one breathless juncture a wardrobe opening a bygone age. Natasha Chivers conjures winterlight, sunshine and candlelit storms playing on Kenny’s wooden creation. He’s also responsible for the green Oldsmobile ad placarded at the start and interval: the car that started it all. We’re treated to stabs of period music Jon Nicholls conjures in a discreet through-composed score.
We start with a crash: a car smashes onto the roof of a neighbour’s garage. Uhry based this extraordinary narrative on his own mother, from a proud German-Jewish family and thus already despite wealth feeling always on approval in a still mildly anti-Semitic Georgia. They’re at a far at a far less marginal disadvantage than the man hired to prevent further demolitions. This is black chauffeur Hoke Colburn, played with a sovereign musicality by Trevor Griffiths, somehow infiltrated into Daisy Werthan’s household by her son Boolie, in Teddy Kempner’s wearily kind portrayal of a top businessman whose Man of the Year award doesn’t hide from him his own vulnerability. Arthur Miller once recalled how his own father always had a car ready in case of pogroms. That feeling’s not so very far away.
Daisy was born in 1876. Now seventy-two in 1948 none of the three protagonists have any idea of the drive of twenty-five years she’ll undertake with Hoke Colburn. Their mutual boundaries are well-drawn. He’s proud, always stating financial arrangements are a matter for whoever he settles them with, refuses to take more than his due, but unafraid of requesting a pay rise when someone tries poaching him. A widower of strict boundaries we see his family gradually ascending, and most touchingly, the fact that he can’t read a tombstone. He’s read newspapers by pictures! Daisy, an ex teacher schools him and the passage of years is swiftly drawn in his competence.
Griffiths hits the Georgia speech patterns with a musicality and arc bespeaking his own musical background, but he inhabits Colburn too with a grace and cadence simply miraculous to behold. Doubtless his part has inflections suggested, but there’s no doubt he’s made this iconic role his own in a way I’ve not seen before. He manages too an infinite tenderness in the closing scenes.
Sian Phillips has a part that though it might seem written for her, is less detailed in its suggestiveness, and she’s more confined in her swings of spiky and sparky, again though with rare beams of disguised affection and even love. Phillips however later finds a way into this part that’s extraordinary.
Certainly Daisy Werthan starts with a stock curmudegon’s role Uhry has avaried not only with shafts of warmth as you’d expect, but both her regard for the Reform Synagogue, and hostility to her son’s offstage wife. Her refusal even to countenance being driven gradually crumbles through mistrust of pilfering (a salmon tin she finds he’s replaced when her own gift of pork had gone off, a tiny, telling incidental) into one of the musical routines, driving through the countryside. Colburn reaches his hand for some of the food, then wiggles for more. At the end of the first act he asserts himself by stopping the car to relieve himself, and the sudden vulnerability, dependence even of his passenger impresses itself. It’s been a long ride already.
There’s also a shocking bombing of a Synagogue which though leavened with ‘but we’re Reform’ underscores how close to racist violence prosperous Jewish people, let alone black poor people, lived even after World War Two. Parallels with Charlottesville and Alt-Right Fascists shouting ‘Jews Out’ in 2017 uncondemned by the US president shudder out. It tragically means Uhry’s lightly-etched parallels with anti-Semitism and the racism countered by Black Lives Matter need even less underlining now than in 1987. As Colburn says: ‘Things changin’, but they ain’t change all dat much.’
A brief conversation with Werthan also shows how the new Oldsmobile turns old, and how Colburn acquires it. Not by asking favours, but quietly acquiring it from the dealer, partly as daisy prefers it. He can now tell Werthan ‘get that ash from my upholstery!’ and know it’ll be met with laughter.
Two major scenes in the second half raise this play to its small classic status. Werthan admires Martin Luther King, but even after his Year of the Man award he knows he’ll be slowly snubbed by the Southerners if as a Jew he’s seen to support King. It’s a chilling moment, and his suggestion that the ticket he vacates should be awarded to Colburn is met too with some cowardice by his mother. Phillips hesitates and blurts out her offer as Colburn is driving her to the event. Another non-verbal scene sees Phillips open an old wardrobe to the strains of ‘After the Ball is Over’ as if on a magic casement of memories, full of musk and must, with old fur coats, scarves and the accoutrements of bygone glamour. It’s here that Phillips turns to top gear, soon afterwards exhibiting distress and confusion in bare feet.
The final scenes, with main protagonists turning visibly frail – beautifully managed –are set as Miss Daisy’s home is being quietly sold. Werthan’s garb has altered, and Colburn can no longer pretend even to himself that he can drive. Visiting Daisy however full of wondrous pathos furnishes theatre gold, as Griffiths’ tenderness and Phillips’ motions of trust produce a riveting diminuendo. This is the version to see.