Utility feels like one of those plays where it claims to do a whole bunch of things that it doesn’t quite do in practice. Set in Texas, Amber (Robyn Addison) and her on/off husband Chris (Robert Lonsdale) can barely pay their bills, and Amber just wants to throw a nice birthday party for her eight-year-old daughter. Meanwhile, her mother Laura (Jackie Clune) seems to be criticising everything she does and her brother-in-law Jim (Matt Sutton) is just pottering around the house from time to time, fixing things.
All four actors are effortlessly absorbed into their environment, a fitted kitchen designed by Max Johns which plays in-the-round, naturally weaving in and around the room, leaning on the surfaces and interacting with the working elements of the set, such as its microwave and toaster. Addison butters bread and Lonsdale takes a drink of water directly from the tap, but these moments – though technically skilful of the design perhaps – distract from the dialogue; so much focus is placed on finding the nuanced realities of this space that the plot, story and character motivations have been demoted to a secondary, only partially-visible element. Playwright Emily Schwend explains that this is a play about a woman reckoning with her own lost identity, yet apart from the cleverly designed kitchen window which doubles as a mirror, this is hardly apparent in Addison’s performance in this production. The stakes are low throughout and the monotonous pacing of the action gives the whole play a tedious quality; we’re desperate for some action, and we don’t get much more than a temporary power-cut or the drop of a birthday cake.
Clune offers some comic relief in her pedantic critique of her daughter’s life and household, constantly reminding Amber of her childhood and how things were in the good old days, with crust-less sandwiches and no cell phones. The humour is appreciated by the audience and is offered delicately by Schwend’s dialogue. Schwend is a keen observer of moments we can all relate to or recognise, but these moments when all put together fail to arch the play with any sort of thrilling narrative.
An image that stands out is a birthday candle in a bowl of microwaved leftover broccoli; some sort of symbol of a burning light of hope amidst a poverty-stricken family, yet this idea is hardly touched upon in much active detail, and the broccoli being thrown away undermines the true desperateness of the family’s economic struggle. At another moment, the kitchen is filled with balloons which fall from the ceiling; this is a real moment of joy, but isolated as a feature within the rest of the production.
The play itself has a great reputation, so I wonder if it’s just Caitlin McLeod’s production which has been unable to give the script the life that it deserves. At times when we think something might happen – uncovered vulnerabilities, a plot twist, anything to change the dynamics of the story – nothing does. Towards the end, we wait an uncomfortably long time watching Addison smoke a cigarette. The lights fade down, at a pace that feels mistakenly slow, and they finally come up again for the bows.
Review by Joseph Winer
Like I gotta lose just about everything I used to like about myself just so I can keep shit even halfway decent for everyone else around here.
Amber is juggling two nearly full-time jobs and three kids. Her on-again, off-again husband Chris is eternally optimistic and charming as hell, but rarely employed. The house is falling apart and Amber has an eight-year old’s birthday party to plan.
As Amber struggles to keep things from boiling over, she is forced to confront reality – she is a stranger to the person she once was and the person she thought she might be.
Caitlin McLeod – Director
Max Johns – Designer
Emma Chapman – Lighting Designer
Max Perryment – Sound Designer & Composer
Megan Rarity – Costume Supervisor
Jack Murphy – Movement
Tim Birkett -Dialect Coach
Lotte Hines CDG – Casting Consultant
Robyn Addison – Amber
Jackie Clune – Laura
Robert Lonsdale – Chris
Matt Sutton – Jim
BY EMILY SCHWEND
1 June 2018 — 7 July 2018