The outstanding American Season comes to an end with this beautifully crafted play by Lynn Nottage. The tale of a 1905 unmarried black seamstress living in New York creating intimate garments for ladies of society as well as local prostitutes is an intricate story of desire and escape shrouded in the hope of finding love.

This heart breaking portrait of Esther, the African American spinster in New York, saving for her future of opening a beauty parlour reflects her tenacity and determination. Her desire for something better and with the real hope that somewhere she will find love; when she begins to receive letters from a George (Chu Omambala), a worker on the Panama Canal the potential for change arrives.
Esther played with huge grace and power by Tanya Moodie seeks the advice of her clients. The white middle class Mrs Van Buren; captured by Sara Topham as a disillusioned, fragile woman with a brutal husband and the glorious Mayme (Rochelle Neil) a local prostitute who dreams of a better life and true love. These characters write letters back to George for the illiterate Esther; these become as more about their fantasies of love and escape than anything else, whilst inadvertently constructing a very different Esther for George to imagine.

As the story unravels, the bonds between the women are tested and torn to shreds whilst Esther attempts to maintain her dignity. The ladies live and escape through the letters, whilst the local fabric merchant, Mr. Marks, a wonderfully sensitive performance from Ilan Goodman lives through his fabrics; offering sensual silks as gifts to Esther – their scenes together an absolute highlight taking the script to a level of spiritual connection that is both tragic and uplifting. The pauses and what is unsaid creating the most exquisite subtext.

Once again a fine design from Mark Bailey makes great use of this intimate space, whilst the costumes capture the era with great style. All of this is enhanced with the usual excellence from lighting designer Ben Ormerod .
Without question this production has the potential to scale the heady heights of the rest of the season. However, the offstage noise needs addressing and onstage it needs to relax and find the true flow of the dialogue in order to grasp the pace and fluidity needed to reach what will no doubt become another jewel in the Ustinov crown.

***

Petra Schofield