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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Driving Miss Daisy
Wyndhams Theatre   Autumn-Winter 2011

If every season gets its star-driven must-see queue-up-for-returns hit, then this year's has arrived. 

Alfred Uhry's 1987 drama may not be a Shakespeare-level masterpiece, but it is a movingly sentimental piece and offers two brilliant star roles (and a not-bad supporting role). And this production, imported whole from Broadway, features two very real stars.

James Earl Jones is arguably America's finest classical actor and Vanessa Redgrave is unquestionably in the highest rank of British actresses. Each of them could have coasted without effort through Uhry's account of the changing relationship between a Southern Jewish woman and her African-American driver between 1948 and 1973. 

But Jones and Redgrave give the roles all they've got, demonstrating lifetimes of experience in the ways they each use the subtlest of touches to pull at our heartstrings and speak volumes about their characters.

(Just so I don't forget him, let me pause to say that Boyd Gaines is equally subtle and deliciously droll in the smaller role of Miss Daisy's son.) 

Uhry's script gives Jones most of the best lines, as he responds to Miss Daisy's unconscious patronising though unquestionably liberal by Southern standards, she is a child of her generation and her culture with half-muttered comments that never hint at disrespect but also make it clear that there are limits to what he's going to put up with for $20 a week.

There's also a delightful scene about midway through in which Jones, in the middle of a conversation that seems to be about something else, manages to make Gaines's character think it's his idea to offer the driver a whopping raise. 

Vanessa Redgrave is one of the greatest reacting actors in the world, and her most triumphant moments are silent, as when in ridiculous self-righteousness she holds an empty can of sardines (evidence, she thinks, of the driver's pilfering) aloft like a banner of victory, only to have to withdraw from the field of battle with her tattered dignity around her when she's proven wrong. 

Or consider the moment in which, temporarily alone, she senses, resists and then gives into an unexpected panic. And, without giving too much away, there's a moment when she leaves the car to enter a building, pauses, almost turns back, wavers again and then goes on uncertainly that says more about the woman than I could in pages of analysis. And then there is the exquisitely beautiful final scene . . . . 

Does this production erase all memory of Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in the 1989 movie? Of course not, but it stands alongside the film the way one great orchestra's version of a sympathy complements another's, each illuminating moments the other misses and each an unmissable delight. 

Driving Miss Daisy is scheduled to run only to December 17. Run, do not walk.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Driving Miss Daisy - Wyndhams 2011

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