Arriving from the Ustinov Studio, part of Theatre Royal Bath, Intimate Apparel opened in London at Park Theatre last night. Written by Lynn Nottage, famed for the unforgettable Ruined, it is a stirring tale about Esther, a seamstress in New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Inspired by the author’s own ancestors, Esther’s is the kind of life that is often forgotten and unrecorded. Through Nottage’s skillful writing, it becomes a magically powerful imagined history.
Esther, a bravura performance from Tanya Moodie, makes lingerie, the intimate apparel of the title, and is a successful independent woman. She mixes in different worlds: her clients – a frustrated Fifth Avenue wife and a prostitute, both well acted by Sara Topham and Rochelle Neil respectively – and her supplier, the Orthodox Jew Mr Marks (Ilan Goodman), with whom she shares a passion for fine materials.
The play’s construction is sturdy. Director Laurence Boswell does it justice and the ingenious design by Mark Bailey is commendable, revealing different locations like a doll’s house and appropriately relying on fabric to bolt the piece together. This is a great story, well told, with fulsome characters.
It’s the romance that really shows Nottage’s ability. While Esther’s heart belongs to Mr Marks, she embarks on an epistolary romance with George Armstrong, a worker on the Panama Canal. Esther’s customers act like Cyrano de Bergerac: because she is illiterate, they write for her, and her heart is easily won by George. Another fine performance here, from Chu Omambala, who speaks with a carefully reconstructed Caribbean accent.
Esther wins your heart with her decency and modesty. She describes herself as “plain as flour” and combines a gushing innocence with underlying sensuality. It seems a touch cruel of Nottage to develop Intimate Apparel in a way that will disappoint romantics. But the story here is powerful – there were gasps at the twists last night – and Esther’s character provides a thread strong enough to hold the piece together exquisitely.
Until 27 July 2014
Photo by Simon Annand
Written 10 July 2014 for The London Magazine