You know you’re in for something very special when a theatre foyer glows with an electric atmosphere of anticipation. So it was when my friend and I arrived at Sydney’s Theatre Royal this week to see the Alfred Uhry's timeless Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Driving Miss Daisy.
This Australian tour stars the extraordinary talents of the legendary five-time Tony Award winner and three-time Academy Award nominee Angela Lansbury and two-time Tony Award winner and Honorary Academy Award recipient James Earl Jones. Also starring four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines, David Esbjornson's acclaimed, smash-hit production has dazzled audiences and critics on Broadway and the West End.
The play spans a period of twenty-five years in an unbroken series of segments. At the beginning of the play, 1948, Daisy Werthan, Angela Lansbury, a seventy-two-year-old, southern Jewish widow, has just crashed her brand new car while backing it out of the garage. After the accident, her son Boolie, Boyd Gaines, insists that she is not capable of driving. Over her protests, he hires a driver — Hoke Coleburn, James Earl Jones an uneducated African American who is sixty. At first, Daisy wants nothing to do with Hoke but over the course of the play this unlikely pair becomes best friends.
Over short and often very witty scenes we travel through many years highlighting their changing relationships, and as the play concludes its 1973, Daisy is ninety-seven and Hoke is eighty-five, we have been witness to a backdrop of prejudice, inequality and civil unrest whist experiencing a wonderful story of friendship and aging.
These performances are extraordinary, the characters totally have you in the moment; as an audience you experience and feel the tensions and challenges of the place and time. It’s not at all dark; one of the most enduring aspects is just how witty the dialogue is.
Of course it’s all in the hands of America’s theatre royalty and what a great honour for us to see these actors in this wonderful play in Australia. Watching Mr Earl Jones as he ages his body over the piece is remarkable. Mr Gaines is a master at creating the feel of a fast changing world outside of his mother’s home that gives the performance a complex reality.
And then of course there is Miss Lansbury. As the central Miss Daisy she gives a performance that will remain in your memory forever. She evokes almost very emotion an audience can expect to feel in the theatre, that after some wonderful comedy and incredible stage business, I saw many dabbing their eyes at the end.
It’s fair to say this story might have limited appeal to younger audiences, but if you want to see acting of the highest order here is your chance – my advice take your mum she will talk about the outing for ages. Driving Miss Daisy plays in Sydney until the end of March then travels to Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.