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My suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that there was no programme for Porgy and Bess. The website had listed just two singers: Talia Cohen and Masimba Ushe. ‘Surely,’ I thought to myself, ‘there’ll be more? Won’t they credit them?’ Porgy and Bess, after all, is a large cast opera: a big story, with big themes, and a big heart. Then, walking into the larger of the Arcola’s two spaces, I found the stage entirely occupied by what looked like a full orchestra, for the first time ever: it was, indeed, the Basement Orchestra, present, correct and resplendent in denim and hipster hair, entirely filling the stage floor. The third warning was the vision of just two singers sitting on the tiny balcony above the stage – with microphones in front of them. My heart sank.

Grimeborn prides itself on producing “Bold new versions of classic operas”, and that is what I’m always looking for here. I’ve seen some stunning edits of key works over the years: a haunting Pelléas et Mélisande, a shattering Werther, a bewitching Daphne, a terrifying Il Tabarro, and many more intense, insightful productions which successfully refresh operas we think we know. But while Debussy, Massenet, Strauss, Puccini and pals all got the rockstar reduction treatment (glorious young singers, cleverly minimalist staging, sensitively stripped-down instrumentation, sometimes even to shimmering piano accompaniment only), Gershwin seems to have been palmed off with a dog-ate-my-homework, ‘let’s just do the ones everyone knows because nobody really cares’ debacle. We launch straight into “Summertime”, sung with breathily pleasant jazz delivery, but without any dramatic presence, by Talia Cohen; there’s a nice sense of jazzy flourish from a slightly screamy brass section, but this orchestra is much too large for this space, and the noise (and heat) soon feels like being strapped to a storage heater.

The first song over, orchestra members rise in turn to read scraps of the synopsis, some with less charm and conviction than others; and, the story bounding ahead like a drug-addled rabbit, we are off into the next number, before we’ve barely had a chance to understand who is who (not helped by the fact that Cohen and Ushe sing random arias indiscriminately, not just those of Porgy and Bess). As Masimba Ushe sets off on “I got plenty of nuttin’”, his lovely rounded bass promises us the earth, but he’s soon beset by microphone delivery problems which affect the rest of his singing continuously, and his performance becomes a mixture of cheerily resonant success and near-silence, depending on the mic’s mood. Neither Cohen nor Ushe make any noticeable attempt to act, Cohen sipping water between numbers and smirking at the instrumentalists. Only their voices imply animation; characterisation, and narrative connection, are simply absent.

This half-hearted, patronising attempt at storytelling, quite apart from clearly putting some orchestra members well beyond their comfort zone, can’t possibly communicate a plot as rich, dark and psychologically complex as Porgy and Bess. The orchestra remains uncomfortably loud; it feels like a long, dull, awkward hour before we’re finally set free. Poor Gershwin: Grimeborn got this one totally the wrong way round. A sadly missed opportunity.


Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Box office: 020 7503 1646 until 6 August

Rating: one 1 Meece Rating


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PORGY AND BESS – Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park


From the moment Nicola Hughes wanders onto the stage in the overture, pulls on a strident red dress, sniffs her “happy dust” and flings herself into a Maenad dance of frenzy, we know this is one of the great operatic heroines: the ultimate hot-patootie, bad boy’s moll, the scandal of Catfish Row. Her story is as operatically gripping as any Violetta or Mimi. From the dirt-poor simplicity of 1930’s black America and a novel by D & D Heyward, George and Ira Gershwin conjured up immense harmonic distresses, a tale of tyranny and addiction, sexual obsession, heroism and murder. That songs like “Summertime” and “It ain’t necessarily so” get hoicked out and covered for mere entertainment is almost a pity; with this magnificent production, under the sighing trees and sunset glow of a London park, Timothy Sheader (and musical director David Shrubsole) rightly restore it to its towering emotional grandeur.

Almost entirely sung-through – indeed to the point that the brief spoken dialogue sometimes stands out with an added intensity – this version is trimmed and blended until it moves with ferocious momentum, never allowing the musical-theatre indulgence of big showstopping numbers. Indeed when numbers are big enough to win their own applause it feels almost an interruption. What matters is the trajectory of Bess: the flight from justice of her murderous lover, her rescue by the crippled beggar Porgy, her reform, sexual obsession and faltering addiction.

Sheader eschews any attempt at a literally picturesque shoreside village and sets it on a bare stage, chairs and tables and fishing-nets becoming boats,doors, beds. This gives Liam Steel’s choreography a wide expressive freedom, the ensemble sometimes forming square choirs, sometimes violently or joyfully mobile, sometimes symbolically still , always serving the narrative momentum. But the huge abstract backdrop by Katrina Lindsay is remarkable: a sort of vast, crumpled shining copper sheet in which you can almost see faces, sensual folds, stitches. Onto this Rick Fisher’s brilliant lighting plot projects the mood: warmly bright before a real sunset at the happy island picnic, hellishly flaming as the brutal Crown returns to claim Bess, pure and silver as faithful Porgy waits and the gospel choir sing to “Doctor Jesus”. It is truly terrifying in the storm. But again, all of this only serves, with pinpoint atmospheric accuracy, the unrolling universal tragedy.

Hughes’s Bess is ravishingly sexy, dangerous, troubled, sweet; lured back to the happy-dust by Cedric Neal’s sinister, light-toned pusher Sporting Life (in a bright yellow suit and pink trilby) she evokes both the conflict and horrible relief of succumbing. Rufus Bond’s twisted crippled Porgy raises a shiver with deep-felt basso cries of loneliness, but gains irresistible ungainly charm in his happy selfless love (“I’ve got plenty o’nuttin!”). Mariah is, as you would expect from Sharon D.Clarke, a ferocious matriarch to remember (and model yourself on, at my age). And Philip Boykin as Crown is so satisfyingl, villainously macho that he got a volley of pleased boos at the curtain call, and roars of approval for dropping an ironic curtsey in return.

But individual praise seems jarring, however deserved. Because this marvellous production is what it should be: a true ensemble, everyone from the dance-captain to the lighting crew serving the Gershwin genius and the pity and terror of the human condition. Unforgettable.


box office 0844 826 4242 to 23 August
rating: five  5 Meece Rating      Male director mouse resized

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