Shorn of sentimentality … Cedric Neal, centre, in Porgy and Bess. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
For the poor, black residents of Catfish Row, Georgia, in the 1920s, the living is never easy. But in the Gershwins' story of the unlikely coupling of two outsiders, the disabled Porgy (Rufus Bonds Jr) and the outcast, drug-taking Bess, life may be hard as iron but it's always tuneful. In Timothy Sheader's sensibly trimmed, finely nuanced and exquisitely sung revival, the lullabies, laments and spirituals shiver in the air like a series of reproaches to a world of hardship and rough justice. As night falls across Regent's Park, the music stalks and haunts the shadows.
The show – and here it is more show than opera – comes wrapped in a 19th-century melodramatic operatic tradition. Katrina Lindsay's ugly, beaten-copper design serves little purpose, despite glowing red in moments of high tension and as the deadly hurricane descends. But being outside the walls of a theatre releases the show from artificiality, and there is a spareness in Sheader's production that cuts through the sentimentality. It reveals the realities of a world where local police can treat the black population with casual viciousness.
But the rules of the community itself are laid bare, too. The production highlights what it means to be a man in a community where manhood is constantly undercut by white outsiders, and seldom has the judgment of women by women seemed quite so harsh. There are moments when Catfish Row seems like the loneliest place in the world, when the isolated, "indecent" Bess sees nothing but turned backs. Imaginative use is made throughout of tables and chairs, particularly in the closing moments as the limping Porgy sets out – a tiny David against the Goliath of the world, intent on an impossible task.
In a crimson dress, Nicola Hughes's mesmerising Bess is a real scarlet woman. She twirls like a dangerous, dancing flame, her limbs jerking to the puppetmaster-like directions of two useless men: the brutal, murderous Crown (Phillip Boykin), and the dandyish, Sporting Life (Cedric Neal), who supplies her with the "happy dust" she uses to self-medicate her pain.
There are also fine supporting performances, particularly from the women. Sharon D Clarke is powerfully defiant as Mariah, Golda Rosheuvel finds both the pain and generosity as the widowed Serena, and Jade Ewen brings a moving simplicity to Clara, who follows her heart and pays the price.