REVIEW: Intimate Apparel, Park Theatre ✭✭✭✭


Intimate Apparel
Park Theatre
19 July 2014
4 Stars

Lyn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, now continuing its UK premiere season (having transferred from the Ustinov Studio at the Theatre Royal Bath) at the Park Theatre is an exquisitely written, insightful and evocative piece of writing that illuminates the lives and circumstances of African Americans circa 1905 while, simultaneously, speaking about the lack of truth that pervades the modern sense of identity and the way, to some extent, almost everyone has secrets and uses those secrets to shape their externalised self.

The writing is achingly honest, tenderly lyrical and the characters pulse and glow with life.

It tells the tale of Esther, a not young spinster seamstress, who rents a room in a boarding house and makes a living sewing intimate apparel for wealthy 5th Avenue women and at least one prostitute from the Tenderloin district. She buys glorious fabrics from a lonely Jew, Mr Marks, who has a small boutique business, and transforms his fabrics into garments of incredible beauty and detail.

She saves as much money as she can, stuffing the precious notes inside the patchwork quilt she has made for her bed, and patiently waits for the day that she can open a Beauty Parlour for “coloured ladies”. She leads a simple, honest and lonely life, eschewing the attention of the menfolk who have “good jobs” in hotels carrying luggage and waiting. Patiently waiting.

Then, a letter arrives for her. She can’t read or write so one of her rich clients reads her the letter and, in true Cyrano style, writes her replies. The correspondent, George, is a lonely man working on the construction of the Panama Canal. After much correspondence, he comes to New York and the first time they meet, they marry.

Act Two covers what follows; some of it is delicate and gentle; some of it surprising and truly sad; some of it obvious; some of it extraordinarily sensual. All of it written with grace, truth and the sweet/sour afterwash of experience. The final image of Esther hard at work on her sewing machine is powerful and evocative; a symbol of courage, strength and an unquashable sense of what is right.

It is charmingly and cleverly directed by Laurence Boswell whose efforts are in no small way enhanced by an extremely clever set design from Mark Bailey which doesn’t merely make the action interesting to look at but reflects central themes. There are hidden realities in Bailey’s set; just as each of the main characters has secrets, so does the set. Bailey’s work is inspired and Ben Ormerod’s lighting adds greatly to its impact.

But there are two great flaws in the production. The most egregious is the accent work. Apart from the boarding house mistress and Mr Marks, the accents come and go, are sometimes unfathomably wrong and detract from the authenticity of the otherwise (mostly) honest performances. Rick Lipton is credited at the dialect coach but his work, particularly with George and Mrs Van Duren, is either ignored or wrong.

The second flaw concerns the music which is too modern for the setting and jars against the overall sense of authenticity.

Tanya Moodie is excellent as the pivotal figure, Esther. To say the least, Esther is a remarkable creation, a fiercely independent woman capable of taking great risks and making unusual choices. Moodie responds to that superbly; her acting choices are unexpected and varied, making the character vibrate with a rawness, a deeply felt honestly and truth. She radiates heat when joyful and expresses that infinite white coldness which despair ensures with a breath-taking intensity.

The scenes where she shares with Mr Marks their joint passion for wonderfully made, hand-decorated fabrics are beyond gorgeous. When she strokes the impossibly delicate fabric he offers her for her wedding gown, it is impossible not to feel what her hand feels, see what her eyes see, bathe in her glow of sheer pleasure. And the moment when she dresses Mr Marks in the dressing gown she has made from exotic silk he found specially for her is as sensuous and thrilling as anything likely to be seen on a stage.

But Moodie’s best moments come unexpectedly: her horror at Mr Marks’ recoiling from her touch; her anger at Mrs Dickson’s dismissal of her pen-pal husband to be as worthless; her tolerance of Mayme’s life as a prostitute; her sacrifices for George and, separately, Mayme; her open accusation of Mrs Van Duren’s cowardice. Moodie plays each extraordinarily effectively – through interesting, unusual and inspired acting choices.

However, the performance of the production is not hers, despite, or persons because of, Esther being the central character. It is Ilan Goodman’s Mr Marks that is the best acting here.

Meticulously detailed, Goodman’s Marks is absolute perfection. He encapsulates the shyness, the simplicity, the traditional Jewishness of the man with aplomb and remarkable skill. His scenes with Moodie are the triumphs of the play. Marks’ suppressed passions are clear without ever being signalled by Goodman. It’s a terrific performance in every way.

Rochelle Neil and Chu Omambala, as Mayme and George respectively, are not in the race. Both give lacklustre performances which take the shine off the writing and the other excellent acting. Omambala is often impossible to understand, which does not help his performance, but it is not just that. Both of them appear to be acting, and against Moodie they seem like a spluttering candle light underneath a full, blazing sun. There, but scarcely seen.

Sara Topham, accent aside, makes a good fist of the tragic figure of the alcoholic trophy wife trapped in her 5th Avenue finery and hiding from herself. As the interfering busybody Boarding House mistress, Mrs Dickson, Dawn Hope is in fine form; her speech about her own marriage and mother being one of the tender moments not owned exclusively by either Moodie or Goodman.

As the title suggests, this is play which features intimate apparel – ladies’ undergarments from the turn of the Twentieth Century. But it’s certainly not about them. It’s about the intimate secrets we all keep from those with whom we interact, live with, love, marry or work with. And, most importantly, it is about being true to yourself.

But like the silk and silky garments Esther slaves over on her sewing machine, this is a play that is both functional and delicate, necessary and yet slightly exotic, lovingly crafted and sumptuous to experience. And like all gorgeous intimate apparel, it ought to be seen.

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