As far as essential female experiences go, Esther Mills hasn’t had many. A 35-year-old virgin living in New York City in 1905, she is destined to go down in history as an “unidentified negro seamstress”, to cite the caption on the projected image of her that opens Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel in a very fine Off West End staging from the director Laurence Boswell that was first seen in Bath. Now at north London’s Park Theatre, this 2003 play from the multi award-winning American dramatist who went on to pen Fabulation (2004) and the Pulitzer prize-winning Ruined (2008) hones this author’s skill at adding dimension to characters who would otherwise be known by their misfortune.
In Esther’s case, the adversities she faces are obvious, even if her occupation to some extent defies them. Played by Tanya Moodie in a note-perfect performance that follows nicely on from her lauded work last year in another transfer from the Theatre Royal, Bath – namely, August Wilson’s Fences – Esther will break your heart. (And here, as with Fences, she is once again inheriting a role played on the New York stage by Viola Davis.) As a self-employed lingerie-maker, she creates delicate, colourful underwear for her clients, who include the wealthy southern belle Mrs Van Buren (Sara Topham) and a piano-playing prostitute called Mayme (Rochelle Neil). She has her busybody, brandy-swilling landlady (Dawn Hope) for company too, but her most admired friend is an orthodox Jewish haberdasher (Ilan Goodman, son of Henry) who sells Esther beautiful reams of fabric. And when George (Chu Omambala), a West Indian labourer working on the Panama Canal, starts to write her love letters, the usually sensible if illiterate Esther suddenly finds herself giddy with excitement.
Tanya Moodie and Ilan GoodmanThose two further their epistolary relationship with the help of Mayme and Mrs Van Buren, who both delight in the vision of romance offered up by Esther’s mystery man, George. Nottage’s take on love is deftly handled and potently depicted, Esther and Mr Marks doting over the silk and wool as if these cloths were their children. And yet, even as their rapport deepens, propriety and religion make clear that the pair will never be more than a haberdasher and his favourite customer.
In stark contrast, George cuts a macho, brash presence, appearing in a cloud of haze and sweat on the platform above Mark Bailey’s stratified set while a smiling Esther beams pleasantly over her humming sewing machine. His words help Esther to see herself differently, but Omambala’s accent, alas, is more West Country than West Indies, and his diction isn’t great. That aside, the question remains as to whether the smarmy George will really be good for the bashful, sweet Esther; let’s just say that the answer will have the audience leaving on a high.
A lone wayward accent notwithstanding, the cast are uniformly excellent. Neil’s kind-hearted but defensive Mayme provides a rush of colour and sound as she struts around in her red corset, happily unashamed. Topham gives Mrs Van Buren a simmering desperation behind her Southern lilt, and Hope lends her pragmatic landlady an all-too-familiar admonitory voice. “There are many tales of caution bred of over-confidence,” she warns Esther.
The final image, meanwhile, finds Esther sewing determinedly at her workspace, refreshed and unafraid of starting again. The conclusion may fly in the face of contemporary narratives of relationships and success – Esther is no underappreciated Bridget Jones type – but it presents her as a talented self-starter undeterred by her losses. And even if history will only afford Esther the status of a caption, Nottage reminds us that the nameless women of bygone eras were so much more than that.
Reviewer: Naima Khan
Editor: Matt Wolf
Images: Simon Annand