Sunday 1 July 2018

Theatre Review: Utility (Orange Tree)

Is there a more underrated production currently on in London than Caitlin McLeod's staging of Emily Schwend's play Utility, at the Orange Tree? It's not that McLeod's production hasn't received some good reviews. But in a period of (over-)saturation of US drama in UK theatres - from Killer Joe to Fun Home - it feels like Utility hasn't quite got the recognition it deserves. In fact, it's an exceptional, perfectly pitched production of a terrific new American play, one that should be selling out.

Perhaps the issue regarding the play's reception is the usual one: an association of the domestic with the trivial or "miniature" that's dogged literary art for decades. (And perhaps a gender bias underpins that association still. To quote Carol Shields: "When men write about ordinary family life they are called subtle and sensitive. When women do so, their work is classified as domestic.") "Ordinary family life" is Schwend's unswerving focus in Utility: the action of the play unfolds entirely in the kitchen of Amber and Chris, an East Texas couple trying to make a go of it together after a period of separation. The birthday of Amber's daughter is a day or so away and Amber is determined to make it a special occasion. But with financial pressures piling up, and Chris's unreliability causing hassles, the burden falls on Amber to hold things together - albeit with some assistance from her mother and from Chris's brother Jim, who is helping out with the renovations of the house.

Schwend's style could hardly be further from the flashy, meta pyrotechnics of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon, last year's big American OT hit, which is currently ripping up the stage in its transfer to the NT. But her play does something undoubtedly more relatable, and equally challenging, too: it gives a vivid sense of the ebb and flow of daily life that feels totally authentic. The approach is somewhat reminiscent of Annie Baker's, but without the more calculated, slightly self-conscious air of Baker's plays - or the ostentatious length. Observant and shrewd, Schwend writes admirably light, unstressed dialogue that doesn't strain for effect but that achieves an absolute ring of truth throughout. As a portrait of a cash-strapped couple negotiating household roles and responsibilties, the play's political resonance is clear but never forced or pushed. There are no big blow-ups or huge revelations; tensions reside in "small" incidents and comments. What we respond to here are the characters: their dilemmas, desires and struggles in the moment.

Playing out on Max Johns's superbly detailed set - the most convincing OT kitchen since Muswell Hill  back in 2012 - McLeod's production attends to the text with scrupulous sensitivity, creating an immersive mood of low-key naturalism that makes small hurts, recollections and compromises really resonate. Unafraid of silences, or of leaving characters alone on stage, the production is carefully rhythmed, with a sense of the family's history emerging naturally: in a remark about a semi-estranged brother, a memory of a cinema trip to The Little Mermaid, a surprising vivid reminiscence. (How and what we remember - the difference of those memories - is part of the subtle texture of the play.)

As the under-pressure, ever-bustling Amber - making packed lunches at 5am, attending to the party preparations, finding just an occasional moment for a reflective cigarette - Robyn Addison inhabits the character with total conviction and compelling emotional transparency to create a touching portrait of a young woman losing herself. Some of Addison's best scenes are with the terrific Jackie Clune as Amber's mom who offers both unsolicited advice and practical help, and views the feckless and unfaithful Chris as a man worth holding on to. Robert Lonsdale makes Chris soft-voiced and charming, aware that he needs to make amends yet still resorting to old behaviour patterns, and Matt Sutton is quietly affecting as the brother with a secret.

There's a heartening generosity of spirit at play here: none of the characters is demonised, and it's particularly pleasing to see folks from one of the most generalised and joked-about of American states being presented without the kind of crude caricaturing that's often the case (and that might find favour with some audiences) but rather with careful patient attention.
Beautifully complementary, Emma Chapman's lighting and Max Perryment's music and sound design give the proceedings a hum, a pulse, a glow, providing a suggestion of the mystery beyond the everyday that Schwend's writing so brilliantly illuminates.

Utility is at the Orange Tree until 7 July.

Image credit: Helen Murray.

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