Porgy and Bess

Theatre, Drama
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 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonArthur Kyeyune and Tyrone Huntley with Cedric Neal (Sporting Life)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonCedric Neal (Sporting Life) and Sharon D. Clarke (Mariah)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonJade Ewen (Clara)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonNicola Hughes (Bess) and Rufus Bonds Jr (Porgy)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonPhillip Boykin (Crown) and Nicola Hughes (Bess)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonPhillip Boykin (Crown)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonSharon D. Clarke (Mariah) and Golda Rosheuvel (Serena)

With a production history as knotted as the nets cast by the fishermen of Catfish Row, South Carolina – among whom the show is set – ‘Porgy and Bess’ isn’t easy to stage. Originally written by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward (who also wrote the novel on which it was based) in the 1930s as a ‘folk opera’, it has since undergone various revisions – including this one, a musical theatre version first performed in the US in 2011.

Our own Trevor Nunn had presented his adaptation a few years before, featuring the astonishing Nicola Hughes as Bess, the woman disabled beggar Porgy tries to rescue from her violent lover Crown. Hughes again takes the role here. Confused? Well you might be: and though Timothy Sheader’s production sparkles with as much happy-dust as its kick-ass cast can throw at it, it can’t quite paper over the cracks in the show’s plot, tone and conception.

Is this really a musical, or an opera? The singing – though uniformly impressive – displays qualities of both. Is the show’s age, and its sublime score, enough to shore up the many issues surrounding a show written by white men about African-Americans, and displaying some distinctly archaic attitudes towards race, disability, gender, drug addiction and sexual abuse? I’m not convinced they are – and Sheader’s rather rootless production, set against an evocative but unspecific backdrop of rippling bronze, doesn’t do enough to dispel these concerns.

Still, there is much to enjoy here, particularly in the second half – the gorgeously loose, limber choreography; the excellent band; and stand-out performances from Hughes – a terrifically sensual, sympathetic Bess – and Rufus Bonds Jr as Porgy. The high-quality cast also includes former Sugababe Jade Ewen as young mum Clara – and very good she is too.

By: Laura Barnett


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