Sometimes it pays to tinker with a staple favourite and sometimes it just doesn’t work. Timothy Sheader’s stripped-down, open air version of the Gershwins’ operatic work Porgy and Bess (which dates from 1935) gets it right, providing moments of stunning imagery with minimal props and a sculpted metallic background which comes into its own as night falls.
Nicola Hughes makes a sexy, sassy Bess, a good-time girl who finds unexpected happiness with Rufus Bonds Jr’s crippled beggar Porgy among the initially disapproving community of South Carolina’s Catfish Row, but can’t totally resist the “happy dust” proffered by Cedric Neal’s nattily yellow-suited Sporting Life.
Packed with unforgettable numbers – from the catchy “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to the immortal “Summertime” – it’s beautifully sung, with a knockout chorus and strong contributions from, among others, Phillip Boykin’s menacing, murderous Crown, Golda Rosheuvel’s widowed Serena and Sharon D Clarke’s forceful Mariah.
But Lucy Bailey’s breakneck production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest doesn’t make the most of what could be a clever framing device. Simon Brett’s additional material turns this 1895 war horse into an amdram dress rehearsal by the ageing Bunbury Players, giving well-known names from yesteryear – Martin Jarvis (now 73) and Nigel Havers (a mere 62) – the chance to revisit parts they played in the early 80’s. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but the concept is more or less abandoned long before the interval, leaving the actors to race through Wilde’s witty words.
Sian Phillips’ legitimately octogenarian Lavinia as Lady Bracknell gets to play around with her delivery of those famous words “A Handbag” between bouts of bossing her husband George (who’s been reluctantly pressured into playing the butler). And their Arts and Crafts home (designed by William Dudley) is a visual feast. But neither it – nor the combined skills of the seasoned cast – can turn this into a more than merely average revival.
Porgy and Bess
Open Air Theatre
Inner Circle, Regents Park, NW1 4NR
£25.00 -£45.00 + £55 premium seats
Until 23rd Aug
The Importance of Being Earnest
Harold Pinter, Panton Street, SW1Y 4DN
Tube:- Piccadilly Circus
Until 20th September
Image by Tristram Kenton