We’re not ones to tut-tut about moral standards in the London theatre but this is the second show in two nights where the eponymous heroine does cocaine onstage. And you don’t expect that from the Gershwins.
In Thom Southerland’s clever and noir-ish Mack and Mabel at Southwark Playhouse, the darker side of Mabel Normand’s character is explored and like many early Hollywood stars she relied on such stimulants to get her through a punishing schedule. When in Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi‘s incandescent physical and vocal performance in Cape Town Opera’s grandiose production, Bess asks Sportin’ Life for a wrap of "happy dust" we were struck by the similarities. Both have made unsuitable choices in life, and realization of their mistakes comes too late to save either of them.
Last seen in London as a self-assured but awkward Carmen Jones at the Festival Hall in 2007, Maswanganyi is an unconventionally great Bess. Beautiful as a pre-tantrum Naomi Campbell, angular, alert and blatantly provocative, it’s perhaps hard to understand why she’s drawn to either the lumpen and bullying Crown, great resonant strength from Ntobeqo Rwanka, or why she rejects him in favour of the sexually innocent cripple Porgy, here given equal measures of resilience and pathos in Xolela Sixaba's rich and silken bass-baritone. Their duet "Bess You Is My Woman Now" is deeply affecting.
Although at 2 hours 45 there are lulls in the action, we found a vast amount to enjoy in Christine Crouse’s epic, stage-filling production but wondered how much was added by the transposition from the American depression so specifically to 1970s Soweto. There are some well-exploited opportunities to Africanise the dance rhythms and chorus intonations, and all the invocations of Jesus make for an authentic revival meeting sound but it also makes a nonsense of the plot in the second half where a ship and several fishermen are lost at sea, since Johannesburg is 500km inland.
There are some great cameos, we really warmed to the “honey man” voice of Andile Tshoni as Peter and the fierce pride and stunning rapping of Miranda Tini as statuesque shopkeeper Maria, the scene where she upbraids Victor Ryan Robinson’s oily and sinuous sleazeball Sportin’ Life is a treat.