Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones join forces to bring us a new stage version of what most people believe started life as a film. In fact, Alfred Uhry's comedy drama started life as a play in 1987 and was subsequently re-worked into a film version 2 years later. With the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and a clutch of academy awards, including Best Picture it has the pedigree to attract crowds in their droves.
When 72 year-old Daisy Werthan smashes her car up, her concerned son, Boolie (played by Boyd Gaines), suggests that she relinquish her driving role and let someone else steer her to her errands and family visits. Miss Daisy resists fiercely, but her son is not to be denied and takes on Hoke Coleburn, a black chauffeur who has a dour but forthright manner which is tinged with humour and a clear understanding of his self-worth. When they first meet, Miss Daisy resents the intrusion into her well-established, ordered existence and looks for opportunities to show that Hoke is unsuitable. For example, when she discovers a tin of salmon missing from her larder, she challenges Hoke in an extraordinarily dramatic manner, almost like a matador about to stick a sword in a bull. But Hoke counters by pulling another tin of salmon from his pocket which he bought to replace the one he had eaten. From then on the relationship changes, trust is established and the two move on to develop a close friendship and dependence.
Miss Redgrave does not sound like she was born and bred, and has lived all of her life in Georgia, but we can forgive her that given the other splendid aspects of her characterisation. She is a waspish Daisy, used to getting her own way and, as an ex-teacher, used to being in charge even when her way of doing things is patently unsound, such as her method of navigating to the local 'Piggly Wiggly'. She's well-matched by James Earl Jones's Hoke who is suitably concerned and deferential, but only up to a point. He shows us he really cares for his employer, even if she irritates him, especially when he has to use the toilet and she does not want him to stop the car, and when she leaves it until the last moment to invite him to accompany her to a Martin Luther King benefit.
Boyd Gaines provides great support as Daisy's caring and attentive son, Boolie, who also harbours a soft spot and admiration for the down-to-earth chauffeur. All the actors, however, have to do battle with an extremely noisy and distracting projector which transmits images onto the back wall to provide scene changes and background, but which sounds like it has ambitions to become a stand-in for a 747.
Even stars like Ms Redrgrave and the wonderfully mellow-voiced Mr Jones cannot disguise the fact that the play is sentimental and merely 'drives past' a few serious issues – particularly with regard to race – rather than stopping to examine them in detail. That said, it is not really that kind of play, and I suspect that most people who will venture out to see this revival will be tempted more by the star billing and the 'feel good' qualities which the play encapsulates.
In the end, Miss Daisy and Hoke become friends, or that is the way it appears. But there is more than a hint that this is only due to the familiarity that regular contact brings, and the fact that the characters have become united in their old age (the 'great leveller'). Even if it was not intended in this way, it's hard to resist the view that it is Hoke who remains the servant, feeding Miss Daisy her pie when she has taken up residence in a care home. Nonetheless, the performances received a well-deserved standing ovation from a mixed audience of wide-ranging ages, demonstrating that the play, even with its limitations, offers much to enjoy.
"I was amused, gripped and often deeply moved by the piece."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Redgrave evokes beautifully the gradual declension into old age."
Michael Billington for the Guardian