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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Wyndham’s Theatre


  Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

In Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer-winning play, a magnificent James Earl Jones delivers a portrait of an elderly black man conditioned by life-long prejudice to expect bad treatment by white people. Opposite him is a terrific Vanessa Redgrave, who, in the title role of a wealthy Jewish widow, transmits both the assurance and insecurity of a woman with memories of poverty and southern anti-Semitism. They are both towering performances. 
Yet as David Esbjornson’s production – which arrives in London after an acclaimed run in New York – unwittingly reveals, the characters are little more than sentimental ciphers around which Uhry has constructed his semi-autobiographical three-hander written in 1987. 
Set in Georgia during the 50s and 60s, Daisy’s and Hoke’s unlikely friendship blossoms against the background of the gathering civil rights movement. It begins when Daisy’s middle-aged businessman son Boolie (Boyd Gaines) hires Hoke as a driver for his fiercely independent mother – much against her wishes. And it is here that the play serves up the first of many moments in which heart cockles are warmed by the sight of a black man being surprised by the fair treatment he receives from white people.

It is to Jones’ huge credit that each of these gestures is offered and received without it feeling that his Hoke is being unbearably patronized. The first gesture comes in the form of the decent wage offered to Hoke by Boolie. And then it happens again when Boolie casually offers to shake Hoke’s hand and Hoke incredulously hesitates at the extended white palm before grasping it. And it happens again when Daisy gives Hoke his first impromptu reading lesson. 
It is not that these moments are not very moving. They are. It is just that over the play's 90 uninterrupted minutes, the gradual breakdown of deference is achieved with a series of repeating poignant set pieces that teach us little more about these people and their world than did the first. 
John Lee Beatty’s design is astonishingly unimaginative. He gets top marks for not putting a real car on stage. It is the people inside that he and we are most interested in. But there has to be a more interesting way of supplementing the play’s most crucial prop than commandeering what appears to be some garden furniture that has been conveniently placed near the wings on the off chance that a couple of actors might want to pretend that they are going for a drive. 
And despite the use of video projections to locate period and place, there is little sense here that there exists a world beyond Uhry’s characters. In the scene where Hoke and Daisy get lost in sinister southern reaches after crossing the Georgia state line, KKK road signs hove into and out of view. There is also footage of Martin Luther King. But even the discussion in which Boolie argues with his mother that for him to show support for the civil rights leader would risk losing business with local bigots (hardly the best argument), there is no sense of threat to Hoke and Daisy’s increasingly comfortable life. And with a relationship that crosses barriers and boundaries, no sense that they are taking a risk. This is a tension-free evening. 
Shmultz junkies may overdose at the moment the relationship between a dignified subordinate and his haughty superior finally evolves into a friendship between equals. But deep down they will know that they exist in a slightly drawn and sentimentally realized play that elicits more emotion than it deserves to.    


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