Saturday, 9 June 2018

Theatre review: Utility

Emily Schwend's Utility concludes another successful season at the Orange Tree, albeit one that's felt more quietly consistent than full of explosive hits. This, too, is in the same vein, an American kitchen sink drama about a woman just about keeping her head above water. The play starts with Amber (Robyn Addison) tentatively agreeing to let her husband Chris (Robert Lonsdale) move back in with her and their kids after a separation. It's implied, if never explicitly stated, that there was another woman, but in any case this doesn't seem to be what she's worried about: He's charming and well-meaning, but Chris is also unreliable and can barely seem to manage a couple of shifts at work every week, so Amber feels he'll end up being just another mouth to feed as she works two jobs. This week she's also got to worry about preparing an eighth birthday party for her daughter.

Max Johns' set is Amber's fully-working kitchen (perhaps a bit too realistic - somehow managing to make the front row of the Orange Tree restricted-view is a design feat, of sorts) where she seems to spend every moment while she's at home.


Chris is doing much-needed repairs elsewhere in the house, although it's probably his ever-helpful older brother Jim (Matt Sutton) doing most of the work; he's also the only one who seems to give his sister-in-law anything resembling moral support, her mother Laura (Jackie Clune) mainly restricting herself to telling her she's not likely to find anything better so she might as well get on with it. In a way, Chris' essential decency behind his uselessness makes Amber's story more tragic than if Schwend had created a monster for her to be stuck with - in a town where Laura is more surprised by fathers who stay with their families than those who desert them, maybe he is the best she's likely to find.


Of course this is moot really because the point of Utility is that Amber doesn't have time to have a thought to herself, let alone try to do anything to improve her lot. This slice of American life is bleak but not quite despairing, which is what makes Caitlin McLeod's production watchable; somewhere in both the writing and the design, though, there's a bit of incosistency about just how poor the characters are, which does end up being distracting. The play's powerful in its way, but in the long run I don't think it'll prove the most memorable evocation of blue-collar America.

Utility by Emily Schwend is booking until the 7th of July at the Orange Tree Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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