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Review Round-up: Jones Drives Redgrave to West End

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Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play Driving Miss Daisy opened to critics last night at the West End's Wyndham's Theatre (5 October 2011, previews from 26 September 2011).

Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948, 72-year-old Daisy Werthan (Vanessa Redgrave) has her active social life threatened by her terrible driving. Hoke (James Earl Jones), a retired black worker from the Werthan family factory, is hired to drive her wherever she wants to go, and they begin an unexpected adventure in the deep south.

Redgrave and Jones are joined from the show's New York cast by Boyd Gaines. David Esbjornson's revival of Driving Miss Daisy plays a limited West End until 17 December 2011.

Michael Coveney

"This Broadway production, which I saw in New York last year, does nothing much to convince you that the crumbling hip generation of the late 1950s and early 1960s presaged a change in society for the better ... The play proceeds by numbers, each scene ticking off a point but not quite clinching it; it lacks heart and it lacks soul, always did, even in the superior West End production of 1988 starring Wendy Hiller and Clarke Peters ... Redgrave has some great moments ... and she almost solves the play’s gratuitous time leaps (from 1954 to 1972) by suddenly hunching her shoulders and developing arthritic arm movements ... The play ends with an act of squirm-inducing kindness, Redgrave in a wheelchair gawping like a beached dolphin, you steel yourself for an embarrassing curtain call ... This is 'event' theatre without a happening, 'masterpiece' culture without a beating heart, and the sort of sentimental old-fashioned fare that is liable to get routine jukebox musicals, in comparison, a good name."

Michael Billington

"The presence of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in this Broadway transfer proves the alchemy of acting can have a magical effect ... Redgrave, in particular, demonstrates her consummate artistry ... There's a piece of pure Redgrave poetry when, learning that her accusation that Hoke has pinched a tin of salmon is totally groundless, she scoops up a trashcan with a fluid balletic movement as if to suggest that her airy insouciance could act as a form of exculpation. Redgrave also evokes beautifully the gradual declension into old age. Her head slowly sinks into her shoulders, her movements acquire an arthritic carefulness ... It is a superb piece of acting artfully matched by that of Jones. What he brings out is the quiet dignity of a man who has survived life's humiliations but knows his own worth ... Ably supported by Boyd Gaines as Miss Daisy's son and unobtrusively directed by David Esbjornson, the two star actors lend Uhry's tenuous play a transforming weight and substance."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave are the sort of actors whose experience and craft recall an age when theatres seemed to be full of starry veterans working their magic, and in this slight yet satisfying piece they combine to poignant effect ... Redgrave suggests the imperiousness of Miss Daisy without overstating it ... Especially the way she discovers prejudices in herself that she had reached her seventies without recognising. She's also funny, as when she poses like Zorro to challenge Hoke about a can of salmon she thinks he has stolen. Yet it's Earl Jones who will last longer in the memory. He invests Hoke with a calm and dignity that feel, paradoxically, both modest and magnificent. Whenever he says 'Yes'm' (as he does a lot) this condensed utterance seems pregnant with a deeply knowing humanity. The production may be too sepia-toned, and the episodic storytelling will strike some as very spare, but this is a graceful and quietly potent drama."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Miss Redgrave takes a while to reach full revs. Her hands shake. There are occasional pauses when you wonder if she has forgotten her lines. Is she gabbling? Or are these details of brilliant acting to convey Miss Daisy’s age? Let us be charitable and assume so. There are no doubts about Mr Jones. From the start he is delicious. Some English ears make take a minute to pick up his echoey Southern accent – all breathy vowels, consonants as rare as cubes of ham in pea soup – but his vocal delivery is only a small part of his performance ... There is a beauty in Hoke’s gentleness to Miss Daisy once her resistence has melted. Occasional music helps to transport us through changes of decade (the story ends in the early 1970s). The staging is understated – more understated, it has to be said, than the ticket prices. Instead of a car there is just a steering wheel and a clunk of doors. This is a pleasing evening of bespoke acting, particularly from Mr Jones. Restrained, redeeming. Worth catching.""

Libby Purves
The Times

"He’s James Earl Jones, born in 1930s Mississippi, of an age to remember Martin Luther King and live to see Obama. The actor himself is an event, a testimony. Here, deploying twinkling understatement and powerful warmth as he “wrastles” his cantankerous lady passenger, he is a memory to treasure ... And there is subtle perennial truth in the interplay of two immigrant races: Jews established and affluent, but still nervous of their position, blacks struggling below ... And Miss Daisy? Ah, that square Redgrave face, those burning blue eyes, that gawky unpredictability, that majestic indiscipline! ... Both principals age very movingly, Redgrave unforgettably occupying the final wheelchair with blue eyes flashing above a toothless cackle as her elderly cavalier feeds her. It’s the first time I’ve heard a round of applause for just a mouth being opened."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"Vanessa Redgrave is at her absolute best opposite James Earl Jones ... Last night however, I was amused, gripped and often deeply moved by the piece. This certainly has much to do with the calibre of the performers. Vanessa Redgrave is at her absolute best in this production — steely, witty, eccentric and with moments of deep feeling as the opinionated, grouchy and increasingly frail retired Jewish school teacher, Daisy Werthan. And the great American actor James Earl Jones is every bit as fine as her patient, kind and long-suffering black chauffeur, Hoke Colburn. Watching these two, you are left in no doubt that you are witnessing acting of greatness. Their developing relationship is caught with detail, depth and persuasive emotional truth." 

- Natalie Generalovich


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