Distinguished American playwright Lynn Nottage’s new play, Intimate Apparel, is now enjoying a run in London after it premièred at the Ustinov Studio in Bath. In the close quarters of the PARK200 space, the action of this well-paced, impressive drama feels as intimate as the lingerie that the play’s protagonist makes, and we enjoy nearly three hours in the company of an excellent cast who skilfully carry us through this strong, touching play.
The narrative follows Esther, an African American seamstress, and her relationships with various figures in her life. Via letter, she is courted by a Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal, who she is convinced to marry without ever having laid eyes on him – this forms the linchpin around which the action of the play unfolds. Interwoven with this are her relationships with different figures in her life, portrayed by the incredibly strong cast. In the central role of Esther, Tanya Moodie gives a remarkable performance and is complemented by the rest of the company. We get brave and bold turns from Rochelle Neil and Dawn Hope, sympathetic endearment from Ilan Goodman and Sara Topham, and an interesting variety from Chu Omambala. Each cast member gives a strong individual performance, but also manages to bring out great aspects in both each other and the play.
Mark Bailey’s set is simple, consisting of dark wooden panels and opening flaps, and accurately captures the separation present in the various levels of turn-of-the-century America. The lighting design by Ben Ormerod also helps give the play a feel of authenticity, with its contrast between dim and warm, bright light giving the stage the air of an old photograph. The projections, used only twice during the piece, do bring down the tone of professionalism a little – the supposed archive photos look as if they have been made hurriedly on PowerPoint – but this is only a small upset in Laurence Boswell’s strong, visually pleasing and fascinating production.
The characters are portrayed well enough that we feel for them. There is a certain agony over watching Esther make emotionally sound but nonetheless terrible decisions, and it’s hard to believe that she cannot see the course events will run when she does these things. Perhaps it’s because we as the audience can see the whole picture, and are aware that she is making dramatic – and not realistic – decisions, but it’s hard to believe Esther could allow things to unfold in such a terrible way. During the second half, events run as you would expect, as the plot is on the whole very predictable.
But in the execution, the piece is only marginally worsened for being able to accurately guess what will happen. The imagery used by Nottage, especially in her examination of hands and fabrics, is fine but never overdone. We get to see a new aspect of everyday American history rarely covered, and there is an excellent gasp-moment during the second half that pays tribute to the emotional investment the play gains from the audience. It’s a good, solid play – not particularly ground-breaking, perhaps, but it is brave and allows us to learn from and enjoy the narrative it presents us.
Intimate Apparel plays at the Park Theatre until 27 July. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website.
Photo by Simon Annand.