Beautifully-observed US drama about a woman attempting to keep her family together
Have you ever wondered how much peanut butter is required for an eight-year-old’s birthday party? Shedloads. You’ll also need masses of balloons (they’re tricky buggers), a fancy cake (try not to drop it) and endless patience. ‘Utility’ is a mercilessly realistic play about what it takes to keep a family together on very little money and with wavering family support. It’s about the personality you leave behind when you become an adult, wife and mother.
Caitlin McLeod’s gently provocative production is all about the tiny details. The action unfolds in a Texas kitchen, meticulously designed by Max Johns. The cupboards spill over with food; the toaster really toasts; the microwave pings. It’s a space in which all the little things – a stolen glance or quiet sigh – feel huge.
At the centre of the kitchen is mum-of-three Amber, who barely stops for breath as she tirelessly prepares for her daughter’s birthday party. Robyn Addison exudes a sort of fuming exhaustion: in the quieter moments, you can see her silently willing herself not to cry. Robert Lonsdale as her unreliable on/off husband Chris – who still texts other women (but ‘not in any real sense’) – has a puppy-dog energy about him. Every time Chris helps his wife, he practically asks for a biscuit.
American playwright Emily Schwend was award awarded the 2016 Yale Drama Prize and there’s a hint of Anne Tyler or Elizabeth Strout to her writing: they all share the same ability to find the extraordinary in the quotidian. But McLeod’s gently simmering production ends up feeling like a collection of beautifully observed little moments rather than a profound or lasting play. Yet there are still some genuinely moving scenes, particularly when Amber talks about the past with her husband’s brother Jim (Matt Sutton). Amber’s face transforms and we finally see her smile, as if her younger self has taken over her body for a fleeting happy moment.
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The official Time Out review captures it pretty well. It is well staged, powerfully atmospheric, and beautifully acted, especially by the two supporting roles: Amber’s mother and Chris’s brother. It is an archetypal ‘life in the day of’ piece (actually two days, but let’s not be picky); more of a dramatic portrait than a story. Where it falls down is in breaking the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. For example, Amber tells us on several occasions how useless Chris is, but whenever we see him he is being both practically useful and emotionally supportive. She gives quite a good monologue on sexual double standards, but only because Chris could sleep with another woman and get away with it, not because he actually has in the time frame of the play.