York Theatre Royal is behind the wheel for a new production of Alfred Uhry’s award-winning comedy-drama Driving Miss Daisy which takes to the stage next month with Maurey Richards steering Paula Wilcox on a journey of discovery.
Driving Miss Daisy, which was an Oscar-winning film starring Morgan Freeman, has touched the hearts of millions both on stage and screen. Witty and humorous, it is an iconic story of pride and friendship, set against a backdrop of unrest during the American civil rights movement and an era of racial bigotry.
Daisy Werthan is a proud and wilful Southern-Jewish widow, who writes-off her car and is made, by her son, to rely on African-American driver Hoke Colburn. Daisy and Hoke’s relationship gets off to a rocky start, but over the course of two decades and thousands of miles, a profound friendship blossoms between them.
Jazz and blues singer Maurey Richards, a former member of the vocal group The Platters and later a West End musical performer, and TV and stage veteran Paula Wilcox, are joined by American Broadway and West End actor Corey English in the show which is directed by Suzann McLean.
The cast has taken time out from rehearsals to talk to Stage Review about the production.
Paula Wilcox, still fondly remembered for the ITV comedies The Lovers and Man About The House has, in recent years appeared in Upstart Crow, Moving On and Still Open All Hours on TV and diverse stage appearances ranging from Great Expectations to La Cage Aux Folles and Kindertransport.
She says that didn’t know much about either the Driving Miss Daisy film or play before being offered the part. “I had a look at the play and it was so much better than I thought it was going to be. I thought it might be a little schmaltzy and very light. In fact, there’s a lot more to it than that.
“I identify with Daisy a lot. She’s starting to feel her age and is a little bit out of touch with things. She feels quite angry about not being able to do things and also other people making decisions on her behalf.
“That’s very frustrating for women generally and for old people generally. When you are an older woman it can be deeply frustrating, when you are as intelligent and quick-witted as Daisy is, to have other people, particularly your son and your driver, thinking they know better than you.
“I like Daisy very, very much. I like her spirit. I like her humour. And I like her vulnerability. As for her predicament, anybody who is older – she’s 72 – will know it’s very frustrating to be told you can’t drive any more”.
Paula is now getting to grips with an American accent.
“I had actually spent some time in Savannah, Georgia, which isn’t very far away from Atlanta where the play is set, and listened a lot to the accent there.
“I got to know some people down there so I feel relatively confident. I like working in an accent and finding out why accents develop”.
Do 1970s TV comedies The Lovers, Man About the House haunt her?
“They were out of the norm. It’s hard to believe now but they were all a little bit daring at the time.
“The Lovers with Richard Beckinsale was quite cutting edge as well because it was about the permissive society and the boy wanting to be very permissive – sex before marriage and all that stuff – and his girlfriend being very old school.
“I was 17 and in the National Youth Theatre. The series writer Jack Rosenthal and producer June Howson saw me there. It was extraordinary really. Then after The Lovers I did Man About the House and then everything led on from there.
“As I get older I seem to be falling into parts that are quite demanding. For instance, I did a lovely play a few years ago called What Shadows by Chris Hannan which was about Enoch Powell. That was very controversial. It was a really good look at so many of the problems around immigration.
“There’s a part in Daisy where Hoke, the African American driver, talks about crossing the border into Alabama and how uncomfortable it feels. That can still be quite tricky in … I was going to say the Southern States but anywhere in the world now.
“It’s just so problematic, immigration and all that. It’s a play that’s really well worth revisiting. It’s timely in a way even though it’s 30 years old”.
Maurey Richards feels a close connection to driver Hoke Colburn. He told me: “Hoke has been in my DNA, my mind and heart since I discovered him when the film came out in 1989 because he’s so like my grandfather and my people, who were originally from Memphis.
“My grandfather worked on the railroads. I was born in 1950 so the timeline of Driving Miss Daisy, which covers 25 years from 1948, is familiar.
“I remember it all. I was there. Martin Luther King, the bombing of the Temple in Georgia. I was eight when that happened. Even then I was aware what was going on in the world.
“I like Hoke’s dignity, his ability to stick up for himself, his growth. I love the fact that he’s embarrassed he can’t read and nobody knew it. There are so many things to admire about Hoke but the main things are his straight back and his dignity.
“I despair that racism is back on the rise again and has become all the fashion. But it’s a different feeling now.
“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, you can’t go back to Jim Crow (the state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States until the mid-1960s) but they can certainly be vocal about the hate. The hate is still around”.
Cory English, who plays Daisy’s son, said: “It’s an interesting time to be playing Boolie because I am in a situation being 35,000 miles away and trying to take care of my mum and dad.
“I am going through a lot of things that Boolie is going through right now.
“He does as best he can while running a highly successful business. He’s juggling all of that and wanting to take care of Daisy so when Hoke comes around he’s a bit of a blessing. Hoke is able to help out his mother so Boolie is grateful for him being around”.
Driving Miss Daisy plays at York Theatre Royal from June 7 – 29.
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