Cedric Neal (centre) as Sporting Life in ‘Porgy and Bess’
Cedric Neal (centre) as Sporting Life in ‘Porgy and Bess’ © Johan Persson

Halfway through “Summertime” – when “fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high” – it drizzled in north London and the hot Deep South felt far away. Any warmth was generated on stage.

Bess – branded a “liquor-guzzling slut” by her neighbours – is torn between three men: the one she honours (Porgy), the one she loves (Crown) and the slimeball (Sporting Life) who keeps her hooked on “happy dust”. But Crown – a booze-brained brute – isn’t good for Bess; nor, of course, is Sporting Life. As for Porgy – a beggar with a crippled leg – he’s so noble and sweet that he simply must be cuckolded.

Composer George Gershwin hoped that his folk opera “would appeal to the many rather than the cultured few”. His original can top four hours; here, it’s been reduced to two-and-a-half by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L Murray, and retitled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Purists may bemoan the missing flesh but the pace is sprightly and appealing.

Timothy Sheader’s production is also appealing. The director doesn’t seek to worry the audience over thorny issues of horrendous racial stereotypes (the primal, soulful prostitute, the huge, lustful “negro”). Instead he sets the story safely in the past, where poor, segregated Catfish Row can feel quaint and pretty. It’s a decently attractive piece of work, if scarcely one to make you sweat at night.

Katrina Lindsay’s set is dominated by a backdrop of two bent copper sheets, 15ft high and 30ft wide. It’s not obvious what her copper means – heat, maybe? – but the effect is striking.

Cedric Neal’s Sporting Life, with his yellow suit and “goddam silly smile”, is also striking. Umbrella twirling, he slithers through “It Ain’t Necessarily So” with ghastly aplomb.

Nicola Hughes as Bess and Phillip Boykin as Crown are formidable. Boykin is a very big fellow with a voice to match; Hughes may be smaller but she is no less impressive. Yet their fierce attraction feels faintly manufactured, as if one might just be faking it. Together they sizzle, dispelling the drizzle, but without coming to the boil, so to speak.

Rufus Bonds Jr as Porgy is the most magnetic and inspiring presence in Regent’s Park. Beaming like an angel, Bonds’ rendition of “I Got Plenty of Nothing” will have you beaming back at him.


Photograph: Johan Persson

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