Evocative and emotional: Intimate Apparel at Park Theatre

Park Theatre has recently celebrated its first birthday back in May. Its supporters include the likes of Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alan Rickman. With its dazzling array of dramas that are produced and staged there, its success can only grow by leaps and bounds in the near future.  The theatre is small and intimate, and with its thrust stage, a perfect setting to watch Pulitzer prize winning Lynn Nottage’s ‘Intimate Apparel’.

Brooklyn-bred playwright Nottage was inspired by photographs and scraps of information about her great-grandmother – and as a result she sewed together a forgotten social history and a fictional fabrication of a sweet but sombre tale. The play is set in 1905 in New York City. Esther, a timid and sorrowful black seamstress sews exquisite lingerie for a range of clients, from wealthy white patrons to ragtime piano playing prostitutes. At thirty-five, she has tucked away money all her life to open a beauty salon for black women, but she longs for a husband and a guarantee of a future. It is here where we join Esther in her journey, as she begins to receive mysterious and beautifully written letters from a lonely Caribbean man who is working abroad. It is here that Esther’s life takes a dramatic turn.

Laurence Boswell’s production is discreet in its sexiness. The staging is witty, quick and smart as the audience are whisked from location to location: from scarlet painted boudoirs to the basement of a ragtime pianist, even to the shores of Panama Canal. The rooms are opened and shut as and when they are needed – and it throws you into the middle of a lost, hidden world of New York’s early 20th-century streets and its black population. It’s a fascinating story to be told: on the one hand it’s the age old tale of a woman searching for love, but on the other it is packed with evocative and subtle twists that leave the audience guessing throughout.

The delicacy of Ether’s relationships with a number of characters is powerful: she sews elaborate corsets for wealthy white women, including the eccentric but unhappily married Mrs Van Buren. The poignant scripting leaves you caught out with one-liners that emphasise the emotional openness, which resonates long after the curtains have been drawn. Pockets of humour seep into the dialogue in painfully awkward situations: when Mrs Van Buren reaches out intimately, Esther sharply quips “How we be friends? When I ain’t never been through your front door?” Mr Marks, a Jewish salesman, shares Esther’s passion for satins and silks, creating a provocative relationship and their sweet yet awkward interaction yearns to be developed – but their love must stay unrequited. These tragically muted relationships Esther seems to attract are undoubtedly the production’s triumphs.

Intimate Apparel is both touching and dramatic; it allows us to enter into a story that hasn’t really been told before. My friend and fellow drama-lover who accompanied me to see the play summed up the performance perfectly: simply one of the best shows Park Theatre has shown. On a side note: if you ever see a production at Park Theatre, make sure you visit their restaurant upstairs – they make a mean broccoli and almond quiche.

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