Sometimes, material that struck you as believable and poignant on film can end up seeming broad, cardboard and obvious on stage. This may sound like something of a contradictory statement after my remarks about The Deep Blue Sea in the previous review, but it’s one that I stand by in relation to the unhappy experience that was Calendar Girls and also - to a lesser yet perhaps more painful extent - in relation to David Esbjornson’s production of Driving Miss Daisy which ends its successful run at Wyndham’s next week.
Alfred Uhry’s 1987 play - which charts the gradual growth into closeness of an elderly Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur Hoke over almost three decades in Atlanta, Georgia - was made into a fine film by Bruce Beresford in 1989 with Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd in the lead roles. Beresford’s is pretty much an ideal play-to-film transposition it seems to me (the script was written by Uhry himself), skilfully “opened out” with new scenes and additional characters that add texture and nuance, and a very touching relationship, delicately underplayed, at its centre. But on stage - and despite the presences of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones - the piece seems more inconsequential and considerably less affecting.
It’s not just the way that the driving’s handled in Esbjornson’s production that’s the problem - though the sight of the two actors sitting on a bench and a chair as Jones rotates a steering wheel attached to a pole can’t exactly be said to help matters. It’s more that the social context seems much sketchier here, and also that a level of hamminess in the performances sometimes exposes the faker elements in the material.
Vanessa Redgrave - still so often a magnetic presence and so very good in the upcoming Coriolanus - doesn’t seem completely in her element in this role. She communicates Daisy’s cantankerousness amusingly enough, and tries out a few typically odd, inventive things, including a bizarre bit of Isadora-esque movement as the punch-line to the scene in which Daisy convinces herself that Hoke's been stealing. But such bits of business don’t seem precisely in character. Elsewhere, she tends to either rattle through the lines at breakneck speed - one of the loveliest passages, Miss Daisy’s recollection of the first time that she saw the ocean, is all but thrown away - or else drawls them out affectedly: “A’hm naht pre-edge-jerdiced.” (Her wavering Southern accent recalls the one she used to much greater effect in her startling turn as Miss Amelia in The Ballad of the Sad Café .) James Earl Jones’s performance is all about The Voice, and although he has some effective moments, he indulges in a tad too much bellowing and cackling. And Boyd Gaines as Daisy’s son Boolie also strikes over-effusive notes. A few scenes - Hoke’s confession of his illiteracy; the Alzheimer’s-afflicted Miss Daisy finally speaking the truth about what Hoke means to her - resonate. But overall Esbjornson’s production offers less of a sense of involvement in characters and relationships than it does the spectacle of observing icons, acting. A compliant - or complacent? - mood of reverence (including applause between the scene changes) fills the auditorium.
The production runs for 1 hour 30 minutes, until December 17th.