Utility review at Orange Tree Theatre, London – ‘quietly revolutionary’

Robyn Addison in Utility at Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Photo: Helen Murray Robyn Addison in Utility at Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Photo: Helen Murray

Emily Schwend’s Utility is about the real desperate housewives of America. The ones who aren’t actually housewives, but are juggling working the nightshift with filling lunch bags at 5am and wondering when the electricity bill is going to get paid.

Amber (Robyn Addison) is a Texan mother of three running a household on a limited budget. She’s helped or hindered by the appearances of her happy-go-lucky husband Chris (Robert Lonsdale), and doom-prophesying mother Laura (Jackie Clune). The tension increases with the arrival of their eight-year-old daughter’s birthday party.

The small, mundane stresses of existence are ingrained in all of Addison’s movements as, at times, is the sadness of feeling inadequate as a mother.

In Caitlin McLeod’s production, Amber and the others perform a dazzling array of domestic tasks in a fully functioning kitchen that’s meticulously designed by Max Johns. They microwave macaroni, fix the coffee, do the washing up and spread dollops of margarine on to endless slices of white bread.

It all becomes weirdly distracting – you start wondering more about whether that Tupperware is rinsed well enough instead of about the characters themselves. The absolute normality of Schwend’s Yale Drama Prize-winning play, and this staging of it, makes it either fascinating or utterly boring, depending on your point of view.

Telling the story of an average, impoverished woman like Amber – a story lived by many but told on stage by few – is quietly revolutionary in its own way. Yet watching the finished drama feels too much like another task to get through in the long day. But perhaps that’s the point.

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Domestic drudgery is well and truly captured in Emily Schwend's contemporary US drama