Lynn Nottage's play Intimate Apparel about a lingerie seamstress in New York has incredible resonance
“I know these kind of men. Sugared words, but let them stick to the page and go no further. He’ll steal your common sense, he will and walk away.“
What a pleasure it is to see another fine play by Lynn Nottage, here at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park! Tanya Moodie stars as Esther in this heart warming story about a woman who works in New York at the turn of the twentieth century, sewing corsets and lingerie for other women who have the opportunity to impress men with their beauty.
Coming from the Theatre Royal Bath, Intimate Apparel parallels the lives of several American women who come into contact with Esther, all of whom have dysfunctional marriages/relationships. Mrs Dickson (Dawn Hope) is Esther’s widowed landlady; a white client Mrs Van Buren (Sara Topham) is married to a rich man who neglects her and Mayme (Rochelle Neil) is a black prostitute. Esther’s other contact is businessman Mr Marks (Ilan Goodman), an orthodox Jewish haberdasher who supplies the beautiful fabric for the garments Esther sews. Together they have much in common — her artistry, his taste and skill.
Unable to read or write, Esther gets a letter one day from a man George Armstrong (Chu Omambala) who is working on the building of the Panama Canal. She gets Mrs Van Buren to help her to write letters back to him.
Mark Bailey’s beautiful dark paneled set allows Esther’s simple room with its sewing machine and single bed covered in a patchwork suit. Mr Marks appears above and rolls out a bolt of blue silk from a collection of fabric. Switch to Mrs Van Buren’s upper class house with its elaborate chandelier and fashionable furniture and then to Mayme’s working quarters, decorated with a hanging light covered in a pink scarf and pink bedcovering. George too appears in an upper panel reading his letters to Esther.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Lynn’s real life great grandmother and her husband from Barbados were the inspiration for this play because these characters are so very true.
Tanya Moodie is as delicate as can be, rather plain but virtuous and excited by George’s letters to her. When she plans her wedding, we feel her excitement when she chooses the white lace Mr Marks shows her. There is a special bond between Mr Marks and Esther, although their religion would make anything other than a business relationship impossible. Miss Moodie’s performance is simply superb as she finds a delicacy and warmth in Esther’s contradictory character.
But as we anticipate Esther meeting George for the first time, we have a sinking feeling that things might not work out for this long distance couple. Chu Omambala was charged with getting the Barbadian accent which has that blend of beautifully pronounced vowels and some Caribbean tones, but it is very different from Jamaican. I think he found it quite challenging but he acts his part well as the less than reliable George with a less than reliable accent. Tanya’s character was meant to have come from North Carolina to New York after the death of her family. Rochelle Neil’s Mayme is sexually explicit in her actions which made Esther and me blush.
This is a superb play with well delineated, convincing characters delivering subtle nuances of emotion. I’d happily sit through it again and it deserves to be sold out many times over for Nottage’s skillful writing, Moodie’s brilliant performance and Boswell’s clever direction. Bravo!
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Lawrence Boswell
Director: Lawrence Boswell
Designer: Mark Bailey
Lighting Designer: Ben Ormerod
Sound Designer and Composer: Jon Nicholls
Movement: Lucy Cullingford
A Theatre Royal Bath and Park Theatre Production
Running Time: Two hours 45minutes with one interval
Closed at the Park Theatre on 27th July 2014
The Park Theatre
London N4 3JP
Website: The Park Theatre
Rail/Tube: Finsbury Park
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Park Theatre
on 10th July 2014