by Lynn Nottage.
Ustinov Studio BA1 1ET To 28 June.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm.
TICKETS: 01225 448844.
then Park Theatre (Park 200) Clifton Terrace Finsbury Park 2-27 July 2014.
Tue-Sat 7.30pm except 3, 9 July. Mat Sat & Sun 3pm.
TICKETS: 020 7870 6876.
Runs 2hr 45min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 5 June.
Natural born writer, director, actor make for outstanding drama.
Hard-working Black American woman Esther has, by 1905, saved enough to turn her labour at the sewing-machine into a business. She gets on well with the people she knows, including Mr Marks, her cloth supplier. Clearly affectionate, he saves his rarest materials for her – there’s a sublimated frisson as they touch pieces of cloth.
But the young, pretty women get most male attention. Esther’s first seen working alone while others celebrate offstage. Growing older, she feels unattractive. So a letter from George, working on the Panama Canal, lights her flickering romantic hopes. By the end of act one he’s turned-up and they are getting married.
Throughout the second act a double-bed dominates the Ustinov stage. Depending on the angle it’s either the one where George satisfies his immediate sexual urges on Esther, or the one where he spends time with a younger local woman. And spends Esther’s money which, hoping against reality, she gives him, taking it from its hiding-place in the bed where he increasingly ignores her.
The concentration and integrity of Lynn Nottage’s writing moves the story beyond its easy trajectory to explore the intensity in an ordinary life – an old photo of two “unidentified” Black people from the era is projected on the rear wall emphasising this ordariness.
Even good theatre often shows the effort in achieving what’s on stage. Nottage’s writing, like August Wilson’s in his cycle of black American experience through the 20th-century, has no sense of effort. Little happens but a great deal is experienced.
And, among a strong cast, that’s also down to Tanya Moodie’s performance, which combines all aspects of Esther without seeking sympathy, even when she has to start over again.
Mark Bailey’s set contrasts darkness around Esther with splashes of colour in other lives, which emerge from compartments around the stage in Laurence Boswell’s seamless production. The impossibility of Esther’s life with George, her friendship with everyone else, the balance of lies and guilt between the married pair and the quiet strength of her character, often registered in minimal shades of reaction, are finely balanced in this absorbing British premiere.
Esther: Tanya Moodie.
Mrs Dickson: Dawn Hope.
Mrs Van Buren: Sara Topham.
Mr Marks: Ilan Goodman.
Mayme: Rochelle Neil.
George: Chu Omambala.
Director: Laurence Boswell.
Designer/Costume: Mark Bailey.
Lighting: Ben Ormerod.
Sound/Composer: Jon Nicholls.
Movement: Lucy Cullingford.
Dialect coach: Rick Lipton.
Assistant director: Alice Malin.