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A CurtainUp London Review
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 Lynne'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!
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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