Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s annual musical is always at the top of my must-see list. For 2014, artistic director Timothy Sheader is more ambitious than ever with a production of the Gershwins’ iconic Porgy and Bess. The show lives up to expectations in near miraculous fashion – it’s an easy five stars.
The musical landscape Gershwin created to reflect the doomed love affair, between the crippled Porgy and the drug-addled fallen woman, Bess, is legendary. Musical director David Shrubsole has done a remarkable job, with the largest number of musicians ever working at the venue, to reinforce the adventurous nature of the score. This production reminds us how mind blowing Porgy and Bess must have sounded in 1935.
Sheader’s stripped-back production brings out the power of the story. What this man does with a few chairs and tables is fantastic. Firmly placing the protagonists within context is masterfully done. We are transported to a different world – full of pain and prejudice – and never doubt its coherence. Good and bad are clear here, brutality omniscient, but Sheader’s attention to detail insures complexity and depth.
The cast is superb. Sharon D Clarke and Golda Rosheuvel play the matriarchs of the setting, Catfish Row. Leading a stunning chorus, they sound fantastic and are utterly convincing as women committed to fighting for their community who suffer cruel lives with dignity. As Bess, Nicola Hughes is magnificent, her voice stunning. A study in sensuality, repentance and conflict, she takes Bess to the edge and comes perilously close to testing the audience’s affection for her.
Three cast members from America join these truly leading ladies. Phillip Boykin and Cedric Neal play very different bad guys: the instinctual Crown, who claims Bess as his woman, and the insinuating Sporting Life. Boykin is a powerful presence with a voice to match. Neal, like many a stage devil, gets great lines, his It Ain’t Necessarily So as intoxicating as the drugs he peddles. In the title role, Rufus Bonds Jr is deeply moving, with a voice that will melt your heart. Seeing any one of these performers on stage would be a privilege. Seeing all of them is an honour.
Until 23 August
Photos by Johan Persson
Written 30 July 2014 for The London Magazine