Intimate Apparel at the Park Theatre
The daughter of a slave, Esther has known a life of relentless hard graft as a lingerie seamstress in early 20th century New York. When she enters into a correspondence with a stranger from far-away Panama, a little spark of hope is ignited for a different and happier future.
The teaming of Nottage’s fine script with the six solid performances is a great success. Young Sara Topham as Mrs Van Buren employs an idiosyncratic voice that conveys the character’s older years, while Ilan Goodman conjures childlike mirth and an affable vulnerability as fabric merchant Mr Marks.
Without Tanya Moodie as main character Esther, Intimate Apparel would be a great play. With her, it is an exceptional one. Her performance is complex and complete, presenting a character whose docility is bred from a life of disappointment, whose beautiful but fragile spirit has been crushed by seeing everybody else advance through life ahead of her. Occasionally that spirit is unable to be contained and displays itself in a tumult of words, or in her displays of ecstasy over a piece of fabric or, most impressively, with real and free-flowing tears. Esther’s affection for the fabric she sews is moving to behold. Being unable to cause her hurt, she trusts it in a way she trusts few people. When happiness lands in her lap you rejoice with her. Simultaneously you’re fearful for that fragile spirit should it all fall apart.
Nottage’s writing explores intimacies: George wants physical love, Mrs Dickson talks of the sexual obligations within a marriage, Mayme is as louche as Esther is chaste. The greatest chemistry, however, is between Mr Marks and Esther, who barely touch one another.
Staged on a just-above-floor-level thrust stage, there’s a suitable intimacy to the play. The minimalist set uses only one or two props per scene. The back wall, like a great advent calendar, comprises several doors, which open to reveal Mayme at her piano, a lavish bedroom or a smoke-swathed George composing a letter from Panama.
Intimate Apparel ends as it begins, with Esther quietly and steadfastly treading away at her sewing machine. Life has pummelled her but she endures, and again she seeks solace in the regular beat of the machine and the fabric beneath her fingers. And then? A highly-deserved standing ovation for Tanya Moodie.
Intimate Apparel is at the Park Theatre until 27th July 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.