Two plays take different routes to equality, while a third shows women can do heists as well as men
Driving Miss Daisy - King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
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Priscilla Queen Of The Desert - Playhouse, Edinburgh
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Clean - Oran Mor, Glasgow
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WHEN IT COMES TO fighting age-old prejudice, there are at least two ways of going about it. One is to tell a gentle, human story in a way that gradually shames people into admitting that their bigoted ideas bear no relation to reality; the other is to get big, noisy, loud, proud and riotous, to the point where people concede your case, in the hope of a bit of peace and quiet.
And in Edinburgh this week, we have two major touring shows that perfectly represent the two extremes of this campaigning spectrum. At the King’s, we have the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre of Guildford’s gentle, well-crafted production of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, set in Atlanta, Georgia, between 1948 and 1973.
The story – told in a dozen short, well-made scenes – is the simple one of an elderly Atlanta Jewish lady, Daisy Werthan, who can no longer drive because of failing eyesight. Her son Boolie hires a black chauffeur for her, in the shape of the strong-minded, softly spoken Hoke Coleburn; and together, these two characters set off through the stormy history of the post-war years in the southern United States, as Miss Daisy’s liberal instincts jostle against the right-wing politics of the local white business community in which her son plays a prominent role, and her own recurring irritation at the loss of independence that comes with old age.
David Esbjornson’s production tells the tale in an uninterrupted 90 minutes, with simple, flowing scene changes, and a fine use of projected images to conjure up the scene, and set the political context; as an experience, it’s almost more like watching a subtly altered version of the 1989 film than a live performance.
The show is illuminated, though, by an irresistible, well-matched pair of performances from Gwen Taylor as Miss Daisy, and Don Warrington as Hoke. And if it’s a little too easy, in the end, for British audiences simply to congratulate themselves on never having been part of that bad old segregation business, the play’s subtle exploration of the evolving story of ethnic politics in the United States – and of the links and dissonances between Jewish and African-American experience – remains rich and humane, and deeply satisfying.
The stage version of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, by contrast – at the Playhouse until Saturday – is about as loud and glitzy a shout-out for the full humanity of gay, transvestite and trangender people as you could possibly imagine. Imagine the dazzling range of costumes worn by a top-flight pantomime dame, multiply it by three, add a ten-strong chorus, and mix in a whole extra dimension of camp erotica, and you might begin to glimpse the sheer garish splendour of this bizarre but exhilarating show, in which three Sydney-based drag artists set out in a bus for Alice Springs, where one of them has a secret ex-wife and son, acquired in an earlier life.
Shamelessly conjured up to exploit the huge success of the 1994 film, this stage musical version of the story was first seen in Sydney in 2006, and now features Jason Donovan in the key role of Tick, the man with the secret past. It has to be said that of the show’s three stars – also including Richard Grieve as the lovely transsexual Bernadette, and Graham Weaver as feisty young drag performer Adam – Jason Donovan often looks the least comfortable; he’s not a born dancer, doesn’t manage his sky-high heels and headdresses with the greatest of ease, and sometimes seems a shade uncertain of his pleasant singing voice.
In a sense, though, none of these details matters; because just as Driving Miss Daisy will delight those who like their politics gentle, humane, and half a century out of date, so Priscilla Queen Of The Desert cannot put an outrageously booted foot wrong with a crowd who love to see a bit of raunchy, spectacular, gender-bending entertainment combined with a simple, sentimental plot about the right to be different. The costumes are dazzling, the playlist of late 20th-century hits –from It’s Raining Men to I Will Survive – is predictable but strong, the design is witty and clever; and if you want an evening that combines the allure of a night out at The Lady Boys Of Bangkok with the appeal of a good-going episode of Neighbours, then Priscilla is for you, with big glittering bells on.
After such a riot of progressive politics, it’s perhaps salutary to encounter the sharp, cold, money-driven world of Sabrina Mahfouz’s latest short play Clean, first seen at the Traverse during last year’s Fringe, and now featuring in the A Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime season. Mahfouz’s play has a touch of feminism about it, of course; it’s a heist story designed to allow its three London-based con-artist heroines – sharp, posh Chloe, enigmatic Katya and young, brilliant Zainab – to enter the fast-moving, multi-layered world of the crime-based computer-game, so often dominated by males.
In the end, the sustained sharp-toned cynicism of the play’s stance becomes a shade wearing; it’s striking that the action and language are instantly more interesting in the moments when one or other of the women shows a chink of weakness, or begins to glimpse the value of female solidarity. Yet in Orla O’Loughlin’s production, Clean emerges as a fine, dense, thought-provoking and often brilliant piece of stage poetry, beautifully performed by Nadia Clifford, Joanna Kaczynska and Samantha Pearl; and there’s a chance to catch it one last time, at the Traverse next week.
• Driving Miss Daisy is at the King’s, Edinburgh, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, both until Saturday 9 March. Clean is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 12-16 March.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
It’s gentle stuff, and not challenging; but it’s still a delight to see well-loved British television actor Don Warrington – best known as Philip in Rising Damp – playing the subtle, beautifully shaped role of Hoke the chauffeur in Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, at the King’s. Despite the ageing Miss Daisy’s early, shocking assertion that black people are “just like children”, Hoke soon becomes her indispensable friend and companion; and Warrington and Gwen Taylor produce a richly enjoyable double act, as two people whose evolving relationship quietly mirrors the gradual but irrevocable power shifts of recent American history.