SORTING through family homes after bereavement has been a rich mine for dramatists over the years, and the award-winning play by American writer Lynn Nottage at Bath’s Ustinov Studio is a powerful addition to the list.
From her grandmother’s Brooklyn Brownstone, she recovered a shoebox of unidentified photographs, from which she wove this imagined story of her forbears. Set at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, in a New York to which freed slaves have made their way and construction is at a frenzy, it’s the story of a woman from North Carolina in a rooming house, dreaming of the love that seems to follow the other residents.
She’s not beautiful, but she is strong, good, kind and non judgmental. Her great talent is as a seamstress, and her world comes alive with the visceral contact of exquisite fabrics, saved for her by the Romanian Jew whose shop is down the road.
By the time we meet Esther, she has just turned 35 and has carved a niche making “intimate apparel” for the wealthy of Parkside and the working girls of the Tenderloin, the one wanting the glamour and risk of the black community, the other wanting what the rich and fashionable are buying.
Out of the blue, a letter arrives from a man who is part of the vast crew digging the Panama Canal, and before long the two are exchanging letters that turn into a sort of love. Marriage is the obvious outcome.
This beautifully observed play is at times funny, poignant and full of insights.
It demands not only subtle direction and performances but a set that can encompass the searing heat of Central America, the faded splendour of a brothel, the grandeur of an uptown mansion, the traditions of a Jewish shop and the dreary ordinariness of a rooming house, all on the tiny stage of the Ustinov. Mark Bailey, also responsible for the costume, has done a magnificent job.
Laurence Boswell’s direction once again shows that the artistic director of the Ustinov is a man whose wide ranging talents are honed in these intimate dissections of the female psyche.
You won’t see a better performance than Tanya Moodie’s as Esther. She is simply stunning as she brings this lovely woman to life.
Canadian actress Sara Topham makes her UK debut as Mrs Van Buren, the lonely socialite, with Chu Omambala as George, Ilan Goodman in a beautifully judged performance as Mr Marks, Dawn Hope as the kindly but interfering Mrs Dickson and Rochelle Neil as the feisty Mayme.
Please go and see this play during its run at Bath until 28th June, after which it moves to the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, London.
It’s a totally rivetting story, told by an exceptional ensemble of actors led by Tanya Moodie, nominated for an Olivier for her performance in Fences (seen at Bath last year), who should take home the award for this astonishing performance.