FringeReview UK 2018
Caitlin McLeod directs this UK premiere of Emily Schwend’s Utility, with Max Johns’ design in the Orange Tree’s sunken rectangle is a working kitchen. Emma Chapman’s lighting rectangles on the stage and echoed above it in blue or peach-orange for the beating heat. Max Perryment’s sound design unusually allows us to hear the cast in four-part harmonies. Megan Rarity’s costumes exude a fadedness without a touch of denim. Till July 7th.
Emily Schwend’s Utility arrives not only with competition judge Nicholas Wright’s endorsement – it beat another play the Orange Tree’s producing in its Young Directors’ season next month – but as part of the most refreshing wave to hit the U.S. and U.K. American women dramatists are riding the tide of micro-realism that’s produced so many wonderful plays recently.
One thinks of Annie Baker’s magnificent The Flick or John both at the National’s Dorfman. Or Audrey Cefaly’s The Gulf at (surprisingly) the Tristan Bates; Amy Herzog’s more zippy, plot-ridden Belleville at the Donmar. And her mentor Richard Nelson’s quartets and trios of the Apple and Gabriel Families unfolding with hypnotic leisure at Brighton Festival in 2015 and 2017. It’s a great phase of U. S. playwrighting, driven by women, and we’re lucky to be living in the middle of it.
Utility’s a four-hander of ninety-five minutes straight through. It’s set in contemporary east Texas, where the put-upon early-thirties Amber (Robyn Addison) has taken back her sexually erring work-shy husband Chris (Robert Lonsdale). That’s partly as they have three offstage children (the first not his) and she has few to depend on. Not her incipiently Trump-supporting vaccine-averse mother (this was first staged in January 2016) Laura (Jackie Clune); nor Chris’s elder brother. This is Matt Sutton’s Jim who Laura instinctively suspects and is offhand to. Amber doesn’t want favours but she needs clarity. And a miracle.
It’s a world where ‘big-heart’ corporates cut you off for a missed back-payment, where you’re paid peanuts but have to grind twice as hard for the tune. Where Amber carefully prepares scraps of meat in her children’s school-lunch sandwiches since (almost certainly) Chris missed applying for vouchers. And even when you present these at school you’re humiliated in front of other children. Much of the conversation revolves hypnotically around Amber’s preparations of meals, scolding Chris when he makes for the fridge, preparing a full-scale birthday party for a daughter, her friends and parents when they have next to nothing. And one car in a sprawling state where a car’s essential.
Caitlin McLeod explores Amber’s minute obsessions with the baking heat, where even eggs go off in a day let alone mayonnaise. Max Johns’ design in the Orange Tree’s sunken rectangle used quite often recently is a working kitchen, or is till the electricity fails halfway through, precipitating a crisis for Amber. It’s a meticulous horseshoe of pine furnishings with fridge, sink near the window which opens onto nothing but its frame. Yet with Emma Chapman’s lighting rectangles on the stage and echoed above it in blue or peach-orange for the beating heat, we’re made aware that opening the window is an act of reckless freedom. Air but midges too. And one organic crumb brings roaches.
Max Perryment’s sound design unusually allows us to hear the cast in four-part harmonies of pop songs from 2003, when Amber and Chris were finishing high school with no further prospects, let alone university or even nursing. Amber works as a kind of nurse support, and you see where she might have headed had she the chance. Megan Rarity’s costumes exude a fadedness without a touch of denim.
Addison’s quiet desperation is punctuated with cigarettes at the start and finish, though much shifts between. Continually upbraiding Chris for not taking more ambitious better-paid bar work further afield – he complains it’s too far – she also has to cope with this Michelle at her peripheral vision where Chris works for a pittance twice a week. Addison’s watchful, watchable Amber rivets attention as she visibly calculates every cost, every setback every slight.
Lonsdale’s lanky attractive Chris mixes hangdog outflanked feelings, exudes an energetic laziness at home with fixing things but not work outside his comfort zone, or perhaps the sexual opportunities at JJ’s. He’s a study in displacement, of wanting to come up to Amber’s brighter expectations, mostly failing to. You feel he’s fled her for easier women because of that
Chris in fact confesses to Jim he’s been seeing Michelle and is trying to fob her off mildly by returning texts. Returning to Amber Chris realises he’s more attracted to her. Amber feels it’s only because ‘you’re lonely and you’re broke’ and unsurprisingly doesn’t return his reawakened ardour. Much later she tells Jim she hasn’t the time or energy to think of anyone else, but ‘If I done something like that… I would get just raked over the fire…. . It doesn’t go two ways. And you know Chris would be outa here…’
That’s the kernel of this endlessly absorbing play. There’s eddies of Amber’s own family dysfunction, when Laura meanly refuses her son Jason a request for his grandmother’s ring to give to ‘that woman walking around with that ring on her finger.’ That’s Janie her future daughter-in-law. And her reaction to Jim is palpable. She pushes his offer of a lift to Amber away by declaring ‘Don’t make sense this boy driving all around’ which sounds benign. But she’ll give her one despite Amber protesting ‘You hate driving…’
It’s clear Laura fears the breakup of the sacred family unit, though her husband left her. Clune makes a clenched face a kind of malediction; her Laura is horribly watchable as she nails prejudice after prejudice like a horseshoe around Amber’s neck.
Chris Laura affirms is better than most men ‘fixing up this house for a birthday party for a girl ain’t even his own daughter.’ Blood and soil you feel follows; it’s that monstrous double standard Amber alludes to with Jim when she reflects what Chris would do if she were unfaithful. Never mind Amber says Chris isn’t contributing and it’d be easier to rely on herself. Chris is good at blowing up balloons, which he the has to clear up.
The crisis of the dropped birthday cake, where a replacement is prohibitive, and its solution precipitates the great piece of theatre as Amber’s suspicious. Jim’s only friendly when Chris is back. Otherwise, Amber rounds on him: ‘you don’t give me the time of day.’ Jim in fact has suppressed feelings out of loyalty to Chris.
This is Sutton’s moment and he makes of it with Allison’s intense silence something unforgettable. Jim’s been elliptically observant throughout; Sutton evokes a man who finds it difficult to express himself except through narrative, and like Chris and Amber, is stung to honesty, even eloquence now the electricity’s been cut. The unselfish Jim’s patient recall of a time Amber and he sat smoking in his truck soon after she met Chris is this play’s epiphany; its effect on Amber is beautifully understated. It leads to unexpected miracles and is one of several reasons to see this hushed superlative of a play.