Theatre review: Porgy and Bess at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Nicola Hughes as Bess and Rufus Bonds Jr as Porgy. Photo Johan Persson

Nicola Hughes as Bess and Rufus Bonds Jr as Porgy. Photo Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

It seemed even the gods approved of the Open Air Theatre’s production of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess when we visited.

Porgy and Bess Company. Photo Johan Persson, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, 2014, Credit: Johan Per

Porgy and Bess Company. Photo Johan Persson, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, 2014, Credit: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Despite an ominous forecast and the odd drop that had the audience reaching for their complimentary ponchos, the rain merely teased above a spectacle that was a storm of thunderous voices and vast emotion.

Add to this the beautiful backdrop of the park and the sky gradually turning from pink, to purple, then black, and you have yourself the perfect setting for a truly moving performance.

Artistic director Timothy Sheader’s interpretation of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic folk opera ebbs and flows from one intensely heartfelt number to the next, laying bare the brilliance and depth of the compositions – which perfectly escalate each moment of the key points of drama in the story.

Nicola Hughes portrays a troubled Bess, almost as two women trapped in one, being pulled on each arm by the temptation of drink, drugs and debauchery and the satisfaction of a wholesome, goodly life among the community – personified by Crown and Porgy respectively.

Phillip Boykin as Crown and Nicola Hughes as Bess. Photo Johan Persson, Regent's Park Open Air Theat

Phillip Boykin as Crown and Nicola Hughes as Bess. Photo Johan Persson, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, 2014, Credit: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant


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Her performance peaks in several glorious outbursts of emotion, including a stirring rendition of Summertime and a desperate plea to her unlikely love in I Loves You Porgy, made universally famous by the likes of Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald.

She effortlessly shifts from darkness to purity and back again in this most bizarre and complicated of love triangles in the intensely deprived slum of Catfish Row,

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Her other half – or third – Porgy, played by Rufus Bonds Jr, was just as impressive. Every thoughtful furrowed brow encapsulated the every day struggle of life as a crippled beggar, an expression that was only given a reprieve in the presence of Bess his human tonic.

Phillip Boykin’s stocky and bullish Crown was also a huge success with a palpable hatred and disapproval almost spewing from the audience every time he took to the stage as the perfect villain.

Sharon D. Clarke as Mariah and Golda Rosheuvel as Serena. Photo Johan Persson

Sharon D. Clarke as Mariah and Golda Rosheuvel as Serena. Photo Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

The stand out voice was Golda Rusheuvel as Serena, whose chilling rendition of My Man’s Gone Now was undoubtedly among the highlights.

Sheader clearly fully harnesses the soulful potential of the songs for the majority of numbers, modernising the performance and grounding it in its cultural significance as the first hit drama on Broadway to focus on the lives of black characters.

Porgy and Bess uses the largest orchestra and company ever employed at Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre, and the emphatic sound created, coupled with the mesmerizing backdrop, makes it’s hard to imagine a more impressive spectacle on a summers evening.

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