Intimate Apparel

  • Theatre
  • Drama
Critics' choice
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© Simon Annand

Rochelle Neil and Tanya Moodie

© Simon Annand

Tanya Moodie and Ilan Goodman

© Simon Annand

Tanya Moodie and Ilan Goodman

© Simon Annand

Tanya Moodie and Sara Topham

© Simon Annand

Tanya Moodie

As Laurence Boswell’s stunningly observed production opens, the whirr of a sewing machine being operated centre stage is resonant. It’s a symbol not just of female domesticity but of more profound changes happening across America. In just a few seconds, it establishes the way that Lynn Nottage’s poetic tale about a black seamstress in 1905 also tells the story of a country lurching towards modernity, a potent mix of shifting standards and fragmented dreams.

Yet as the title ‘Intimate Apparel’ suggests, it is through the delicately personal that the Pulitzer-winning Nottage’s play is political. Tanya Moodie’s Esther creates exquisite lacy underwear for bored married women, young girls about to embark on their wedding nights, and for a friend who is a prostitute. For each, the trying on of the new underwear represents a brief clash of fantasy with reality, provoking acerbic revelations about disinterested husbands, lovers with opium addictions and abusive fathers.

None of this deters Esther, 35, from the dream of finding perfect love – and it is no coincidence that she does so with a man thousands of miles away, working on the Panama Canal. In his first letter to Esther, he declares that ‘If importance be measured by how many men die, then this be real important work’. Esther is illiterate, so she enjoins her female clients to help her write letters back to her oppressed hero. Between his letters and their combined imaginations the image of an ideal husband is created – so it’s little wonder that Esther agrees to become his bride, even though the two only actually meet moments before the ceremony.

Disillusion is inevitable, but this is no misery memoir, not least due to Moodie’s extraordinary stage presence. She can be brimful of joy or wretchedness at the drop of a seamstress’s pin, whether she is revelling in the beauty of a new piece of fabric or reeling at a friend’s betrayal. Against Mark Bailey’s ingenious compartmentalised set, the rest of the cast contribute equally strong performances.

Sarah Topham’s Mrs Van Burem exudes acerbic elegance as she talks about her infertility. Rochelle Neil is an enjoyably outrageous Mayme, all striped tights and attitude. And Ilan Goodman’s performance as the Jewish fabric salesman, who feels genuine passion for Esther because of their shared love of silks and satins, is a masterclass in suppressed emotion.

‘Intimate Apparel’ provides a perspective on lives at the turn of the twentieth century that is both profound and witty. Though its subject is lace, it has a core of steel

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