Porgy and Bess (Open Air Theatre)

The great American opera spends Summertime livin’ it easy in Regent’s Park

Decades before rock stars took to the opera house, one of the world’s greatest and most popular songwriters, George Gershwin, smashed cultural barriers with his genre-busting work about the impoverished life of African Americans in South Carolina. Written and produced by whites, Porgy and Bess has attracted controversy ever since its 1935 debut but has fought back again and again and, while it won’t win over everyone politically, is now set to thrill new audiences with a vibrant new production at Regents Park.

Philip Boykin as Crown and Nicola Hughes as Bess in Porgy and Bess (Open Air Theatre
Philip Boykin as Crown and Nicola Hughes as Bess in Porgy and Bess (Open Air Theatre)
© Johan Persson

Apart from containing some of its composer’s greatest numbers, Porgy and Bess has the strength to withstand multiple approaches from the full-blown operatic to the trimmed down musical theatre treatment, shorn of recitatives and over in 150 minutes, which is what it gets from Timothy Sheader and his team.

A homegrown ensemble, with a star turn by Nicola Hughes (reprising her Olivier Award nominated performance in Trevor Nunn’s 2006 production), is joined by US performers Rufus Bonds Jr, Cedric Neal and Philip Boykin in the key roles of Porgy, Sporting Life and Crown.

The story, drawn from a 1925 novel by DuBose Heyward, charts the unlikely relationship between the tortured Bess, constantly lured back to a life of physical and drug abuse, and the "cripple" Porgy, big of heart and optimistic of soul, against a backdrop of the poor but solid community of Catfish Row.

Hughes is an uninhibited powerhouse as Bess. There’s perhaps little in the way of chemistry or real vocal connection between her and Bonds Jr’s dour Porgy but that just emphasises the couple’s mismatch. Boykin’s testosterone-fuelled raging bull of a Crown dominates the stage with the size of his personality, a scary monster of a man redeemed by a girlish curtsey at the curtain call.

The committed central performances are joined by colourful characterisations from Neal as the foppish spiv Sporting Life, shining in "It Ain’t Necessarily So", and Sharon D Clarke‘s fearsome matriarch Mariah. Jade Ewen is appealing as young mother Clara, who gets the gift of the work’s most celebrated number, "Summertime", to kick things off at the start of the show, while Golda Rosheuvel‘s heartfelt lament for her murdered husband is tear-jerkingly convincing.

The production team give a nod towards the work’s operatic aspirations with an increasingly stylised presentation – balletic fight sequences, joyful choreography (Liam Steel) and overt physicalisations – that culminates in a shattering storm scene. Sheader is playful with the furniture (including one example of that tired cliché of the opera house, the chair flung across the stage to signal anger) and inventive in his conjuring up of a world balanced between gritty reality and dramatic excess.

Hanging over all is designer Katrina Lindsay‘s backdrop of burnished bronze, a stylised seaside cliff and ever-present statement that this is a world of theatrical flourish rather than kitchen sink reality.

Gershwin’s score is a knock-out, the singing’s great and, with the now obligatory standing ovation on the press night, Regents Park look as though it has a sure fire hit to get them through the height of the summer season.