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Review of Utility by Emily Schwend at Orange Tree Theatre

Robyn Addison and Matt Sutton in UTLITY by Emily Schwend_OrangeTreeTheatre_photo by Helen Murray
Robyn Addison and Matt Sutton in UTLITY by Emily Schwend_OrangeTreeTheatre_photo by Helen Murray

Diamonds according to Marilyn Monroe are a girl’s best friend, but after watching Utility we know that cigarettes are. In a scene which attains poetic beauty Amber Larson ( Robyn Addison) sits alone in the dark, the utility company have turned the electricity off, in her kitchen and takes consolation in a smoke. As she sits there looking around her kitchen and taking deep pulls on her fag she both brings home the reality of her life as a struggling young mum but also creates space just for herself. For my money, it’s the best scene, both grittily realistic and poetic, in Emily Schwend’s new play Utility. A four-hander, 90 minutes long, no interval, set in Texas, Utility is literally a kitchen sink drama, about a white working-class family struggling to make ends meet.

Amber and Chris ( Robert Lonsdale) are trying to get back together after yet another of Chris’ lapses with drugs and women. Chris gets his brother Jim (Matt Sutton) to help fix up there house. Amber’s mum Laura ( Jackie Clune) is suspicious of Jim’s motives and urges Amber to give Chris another chance as “men don’t stick by their kids anymore”. The tensions between these four are brought to life in scenes at once compelling and excruciating. The action all takes place in the kitchen in a set so clever that we feel we are in the kitchen too. So hats off to Max Johns the designer. Caitlin McLeod’s direction gets the pacing spot on. It’s brisk and economical when showing the plot development but achieves Zen-like moments of epiphany too. As when Amber drops the birthday cake from Wal-Mart and stares down at it in what seems like slow motion. The harsh realities of being poor in Texas are tellingly realised. As when the lights go out the night before the birthday party, which then leads to a brilliant explanation by Amber as to why the utility company won’t switch the power back on until they pay lasts month minimum but they can’t do that until they pay next month’s minimum because they didn’t pay last month’s minimum. It’s a wonderful Alice In Wonderland moment which captures the surreal world the poor inhabit. Think Grenfell Tower.

Robyn Addison as Amber is superb. She convinces a young mum working two jobs bringing up three kids with a husband who she is not sure about. We see her brilliant multitasking skills and manic energy as she makes Herculean efforts to keep the show on the road. She has reached the point where she doesn’t care about Chris’ womanising anymore but she feels the injustice of the sexual double standard and laments the loss of the person she used to be before marriage and kids. Unlike Nora in A Doll’s House Amber does not walk out on her husband and kids. She stays and smokes a cigarette in the kitchen. She’s trapped or has she trapped herself? A less dramatic ending no doubt but just as powerful and perhaps even more true to the experience of poor women today?

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

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.

Creative
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

Cast
Robyn Addison – Amber
Jackie Clune – Laura
Robert Lonsdale – Chris
Matt Sutton – Jim

Utility
BY EMILY SCHWEND
1 June 2018 — 7 July 2018
https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/



Author

  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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