Lynn Nottage's play at the Park Theatre, set in 1905 in New York, tells the fictionalised story of her great-grandmother. Esther is a dumpy African-American seamstress, living on her own in a boarding house and just turning 35 with no man to marry. Suddenly a letter arrives from George, a man she doesn't know, a Caribbean labourer on the Panama Canal.
Esther and George don't meet until halfway through the play; until then her story is told in a series of two-handed scenes with the people she knows -- her landlady Mrs Dickson, Mr Marks the Orthodox Jewish cloth merchant, and two of her customers,, the glamorous prostitute Mayme and the wealthy white lady Mrs Van Buren whose husband is ignoring her. It's a slow build-up; George appears on his own, reading his letters to Esther, which start off very formal and become increasingly romantic.
In a way, the story is a bit predictable, but it's beautifully told. Once the couple get together in New York, George quickly turns out to be a wrong'un, which isn't exactly a surprise. The letters they have exchanged, it turns out, have both been written by other people. Esther's romantic dream and the savings she has stuffed into her quilt disappear, leaving her back with her sewing machine in the boarding house. There's an echo here of the sentimental short stories of O. Henry, written in New York at the same period, such as The Gift of the Magi.
Lynn Nottage's play may have a slow build-up, but the second half really comes alive. The character of Esther is beautifully drawn and Tanya Moodie gives an exceptional performance. Esther is stolid and possibly even a bit boring; but Moodie gives an understated and subtle projection of her desires and ambitions. She shares with Mr Marks a polite but sensual friendship based on their love of beautiful textiles; Esther's hands move across his exquisite printed silks and linens with gestures of repressed love. There is real intimacy in Esther's relationships with her customers Mayme and Mrs Van Buren, and the suits, silk corsets and smoking jackets she creates become objects imbued with many meanings.
Chu Omambala (George), Ilan Goodman (Mr Marks), Rochelle Neil (Mayme), Dawn Hope (Mrs Dickson) and Sara Topham (Mrs Van Buren) all give very strong performances; I also liked Laurence Boswell's direction and Mark Bailey's doll's house set. Boswell is director of the Ustinov Studio at the Theate Royal Bath, which is a constant source of creative new productions. Curiously, his last show to transfer to London was also set in New York just over a century ago -- In The Next Room, which I saw at the St James Theatre. Of the two, Intimate Apparel, which was written more than a decade ago, is far the better play, because it has a central protagonist. Lynn Nottage followed it with Ruined, which I saw at the Almeida four years ago, an excellent play set in war-torn Congo. I hope very much that Tanya Moodie gets on the 2014 awards shortlists for her performance as Esther.