Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is like no other venue in London. Hidden by large trees, it’s the kind of place you’d only find if you were actively looking. More than just a theatre, it has the West End’s longest bar and its own picnic garden. It’s beautiful and magical on every level. It’s also entirely in the open, so you may want to check the weather report before you go. According to the theatre’s website, 94% of performances are completed, so you’re probably fine with a mac in your bag, just in case.
The night of our performance was one of the hottest of the year – watching the light fade as the drama unfolds is truly entrancing. And as the story on stage gets darker – so does the real world around us.
Nicola Hughes’s epic entrance as Bess marked a superb start to the production, with audible gasps from the audience. She’s a powerful presence with a strong sense of her own sexual identity, though soon we find out that she's ultimately an addict controlled by drugs. The ‘magic powder’ in the story has many possible modern parallels, like cocaine or mephedrone for example, and the line ‘only a pinch’ is the sort of thing you might hear in a London nightclub today.
Hughes is a wonderful Bess – her fight against her demons is inspiring, heart-warming and ultimately heartbreaking, as we see her roller-coaster in and out of control.
Bess is controlled by the villain Crown, played here by Phillip Boykin as a man on the edge, with bags of menace, darkness and brute strength. Boykin is an intimidating and forceful presence, as thrilling to watch as Bess.
In terms of sound quality, sadly such a beautiful, open setting isn’t best suited for a production like Porgy & Bess and at times we were straining to hear the quieter moments from some of the performers. It’s also a shame not to be able to see at least a hint of the orchestra – although joining the cast for the bows at the end was a lovely touch.
There are few musicals that have had so many of their songs transfer into the realms of mainstream musical culture – ‘Summertime’, ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So,’ ‘I Got Plenty Of Nothing’ and ‘I Loves You Porgy’ all feature. ‘Summertime’ is sung twice, in two very different moods, ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ with more trickery and darkness than we’ve heard before. ‘I Loves You Porgy’ has all the emotion, love and hope you might hope for and it’s with this song that we finally see Bess rise up, as she sees a light at the end of the tunnel for the first time, perhaps even her salvation, through the love and care of Porgy.
Rufus Bonds Jnr is a gentle, understated Porgy who is at his best opposite Bess and during his rendition of ‘I Got Plenty Of Nothing.’
Serena’s (Golda Rosheuvel’s) ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ is a powerful peak in the first half – as is anything sung by the exceptionally talented George Ikediashi.
Not technically perfect, this is nevertheless a beautiful, spellbinding production with great beauty and heart and a thrilling darkness that runs throughout.
At Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, until August 23. Tickets £25-£45. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.