Intimate Apparel, review: ‘Almost perfect’


An excellent production of a remarkable play is slightly spoilt by one dodgy Caribbean accent, writes Dominic Cavendish in this review for London’s Telegraph.

Can a dodgy accent spoil a show? Laurence Boswell’s UK premiere production of Lynn Nottage’s remarkable 2003 play about a lonely, naive African-American seamstress toiling in turn-of-the-20th-century New York is perfect in almost every respect, yet another feather in its cap for the Ustinov, Bath.

But, though I feel like a heel for saying so, one obvious deficiency lies in the meandering direction of Chu Omambala’s diction. Omambala plays George, a Barbadian labourer who becomes our meek and mild heroine Esther’s husband following an epistolary romance struck up while he’s working in a back-breaking fashion on the Panama Canal.

Can we take what happens as seriously when George sounds Caribbean one moment, Bristolian the next? “We don’t mind – he’s got lovely arms,” said a friend of mine who happened to be at the same performance as me, together with a bunch of her mates. I can’t vouch for that, but I will say, in the actor’s defence, that he has fantastic eyes, burning with longing when George dreams of a new life, later blazing with anger and disgust at his plain, sexually-restrained spouse whose savings – stitched into her bed-quilt – could transform his lot.

In short, his conviction wins you over. And in a sense, the requirement that we latch on to the underlying truth of his portrayal tallies with Nottage’s achievement. She has drawn on old photographs and scraps of information about her great-grandmother and embroidered those details, making forgotten social history flesh through the power of fabrication and heart-felt intuition. You notice the artifice – the deft weave of scenes, the exquisite poise of the language – and that’s made more manifest by the design here, with its crafty array of boudoirs, back-rooms and vignettes, screened-off and revealed as required. Yet you are seduced into accepting it as authentic.

I hope, all the same, that more coaching or practice will anchor that accent because the surrounding performances are so extraordinary. Tanya Moodie is unforgettably poignant as the sorrowful, painfully shy Esther. There’s needle-sharp work too from Dawn Hope as her worldly-wise landlady, Sara Topham as the rich white woman who takes Esther under her wing, Ilan Goodman as a kindly Jewish fabric-supplier and Rochelle Neil as the hardened but not hateful harlot to whom George turns. Even if the vagaries of the latter’s vocal delivery remain, though, I don’t hesitate to stamp “thoroughly recommended” on this richly textured import. It’s simply too good to miss.

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