Melissa Blease reviews Driving Miss Daisy, a Theatre Royal Bath production, now on national tour

By the time you read these words, Miss Daisy’s chauffeur, Hoke, will have driven all of his employer’s classic American cars out of the county to embark on a national tour, taking this Theatre Royal Bath production starring legendary thesp Dame Siân Phillips and the inimitable Derek Griffiths to theatres across the UK – and Bath’s loss is very much everyone else’s gain.

Derek Griffiths as Hoke Colburn and Siân Phillips as Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy. Credit: Nobby Clark

Gently poignant, exquisitely well-observed and subtly affecting, the tale of cranky, stubborn Jewish widow Daisy Werthan’s long-standing friendship with her African-American driver Hoke Colburn is, overall, a sentimental journey, despite the fact that their relationship spans a 25-year period dogged by the fight against inequality.

The tale begins in 1948 when Miss Daisy’s son employs Hoke against his mother’s will, with her latest fender-bender having convinced him she’s no longer capable of driving herself. A quarter of a century later, and not only have the duo navigated their way against a backdrop of civil unrest and radical societal change (it’s sad, somehow, that such a context can be described as timeless, let alone timely), but they’ve also built a firm friendship based, quite simply, on mutual empathy – and, most importantly perhaps – respect for one another’s viewpoints and experiences.

While Alfred Uhry’s original 1987 stage play (which was inspired by the real-life story of Uhry’s grandmother Lena Fox and her real-life chauffeur), was hugely well-received, it was the 1989 Academy Award-winning film version starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman that brought the story to a mass audience.

At times this new stage production can feel slower-paced and a little less hard-hitting than the big screen production, while key moments in the story’s development, such as when Miss Daisy teaches Hoke to read, or when she doesn’t, after all, take Hoke with her as a partner to a banquet featuring Martin Luther King as a guest speaker, are left unresolved. But then again, perhaps such ambiguity is at the core of what makes this tale so authentic; when one looks back on one’s own experiences, few of our own personal dramas have their trailing loose ends neatly tied up. And anyway, Phillips, Griffiths and Teddy Kempner as Miss Daisy’s son bring their characters to life with such grace, wit and sensitivity that we’re able to fill in the odd few blanks ourselves.

But it’s when Hoke arrives at Miss Daisy’s home one morning in the early 1970s to find her agitated and showing signs of early dementia that the pair’s capacity for grace under pressure really comes to the fore. Phillips is both beautiful and brave in the final moments of the play, while Griffiths is at his funny, compassionate, equanimous best. Both, meanwhile, are dignity personified.

At the start of their story, bigotry was Daisy and Hoke’s worst enemy; at the denouement, it is old age, life experience and a profound understanding of what love really means that binds them together.

Find out more about the Driving Miss Daisy national tour here: ents24.com/driving-miss-daisy

Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk

Main image: Siân Phillips as Daisy Werthan in Driving Miss Daisy. Credit: Nobby Clark