Open Air Theatre, London **** By George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin Book Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks Musical Score Adapted by Diedre L. Murray Directed by Timothy Sheader
Nicola Hughes and Rufus Bonds Jr on opening night
The amphitheatre at Regents Park is dominated by a massive backdrop of beautifully buckled burnished copper. As the sun goes down and passions rise in Timothy Sheader’s inspired take on this North Carolina fable, the design reflects the light. lending its metallic nuances to the palette. Gold becomes red, becoming moonlit pale or a terrifying stormy blue. Katrina Lindsay’s stage design is breathtaking before the band have even struck up.
Sheader sets out a bold stall in the Overture. In a solo routine Bess emerges, clad only in a slip and in a lithe sensuous dance, slides into a sizzling red dress slit to the hips. Truly one of London’s Leading Ladies, Nicola Hughes owns the stage in a performance that defines her character’s complex combination of iressistible sexual magnetism with profound vulnerability.
If Hughes represents the best of British, then she is well matched against the trio of trans-atlantic talent, flown in under the UK-USA Equity deal, whose characters vie for Bess’ attentions. Cedric Neal reprises the coke peddling Sporting Life from his Broadway performance two years ago. His elegant peacocked flamboyance defining the fatally attractive evil of the drugs he supplies. In a show crammed with The American Songbook greats, Neal’s act two opener, It Ain’t Necesssarily So takes this most familiar of numbers and makes it sizzle with a thrilling interpretation. Philip Boykin, also over from the States, nails the muscular menace of Crown. A man as large as his booming baritone, Boykin imbues Crown with the purest of dark violence. Rufus Bonds Jr completes the set of imports, starring as Porgy. Bond gives a pathos and a power to the role that makes our hearts bleed for his crippled character. His voice and presence is inspirational, defining goodness as he craves a shaft of Bess’ love to light his crippled world. Against three such stunning performers, Hughes more than rises to the challenge. “Frailty, thy name is Bess” could define her character, desperate to be a good woman, but unable to sustain a loving commitment or resist her addictions.
The company work is flawless. Sharon D Clarke’s Mariah is a performance of wisdom and presence. Golda Rosheuvel’s Serena is a role of subtle humility, yet when this actress mourns her husband with My Man’s Gone Now, her voice as if from nowhere, fills the open-air space, tingling spines. A nod too to Jade Ewen’s Clara, the diminutive Sugababe who masters the show’s signature Summertime, with a perfectly weighted poise.
Amidst such a classy company, the use of ramshackle tables and chairs as improvised scene-setters is a distraction. Excellent performers demand an excellence in staging and the frequent shifting of tacky furniture suggests low-budget fringe rather than a production that frames world-class talent. It also remains a disappointment that a show, so steeped in the troubled, racist, tenement history of America’s South plays to a London audience that is overwhelmingly white. It deserves packed houses that reflect a broader cross-section of the capital’s melting pot.
David Shrubsole coaxes a jazz-infused delight from his lavishly furnished 15-piece band and with few finer companies in town, The Open Air Theatre’s Porgy And Bess is unmissably incisive and thrillingly provocative.