It’s hard to overstate the risk that has been taken in Emily Schwend’s award-winning play Utility, which has its European premiere at the Orange Tree. In a world of slow-burning dramas, this has to be one of the slowest. Add to that, there’s no big event, no whopping dramatic arc, no life-changing revelation contrived to grab your attention.
Instead, we follow Amber (Robyn Addison) a thirty-something mother in current-day East Texas whose days are a perpetual balancing act between bringing up the children, paying the bills, running errands and holding down a job – all whilst sharing her bed with a man who isn’t faithful to her.
Cash is tight, demands are high, and love is thin on the ground. Her husband, Chris (Robert Lonsdale) does what he thinks is enough, whilst her mother (Jackie Clune) ain’t keen on getting too involved, preferring not to get too wrapped up in her daughter’s issues. This leaves Amber, years into this set up, going through the motions, doing just enough to hold it all together – doing enough to hold her family unit together – a far cry from the bright and vivacious schoolgirl who first caught Chris’s eye.
But for all the gloom, there is something radical being presented here, and that is the tragedy of the everywoman. Of the crushed hopes and aspirations. Of the limited horizons and a million unseen compromises.
In this play, nothing happens. Nothing. It’s centred around the daughter’s eight birthday party, and, simply, Amber’s push to get through it in one piece – for her daughter to have an enjoyable day and for it all to go smoothly. There are no seismic shocks on the horizons, no stranger arrives in town. Rather this is a play on the obligations and the tiny disappointments of one woman’s existence. A ‘life in the day of,’ if you will.
There will be times when watching this play when you may feel it’s quite dull; there may be times where you wonder where the conflict is. But it’s all there in front of you, I promise. It’s just hiding in plain sight.
You see, all the conflict here is internal. It’s every time Amber says ‘OK,’ when Chris lets her down again. It’s in the ‘Sure,’ she says each time Chris apologises for not filling up the tank/for accepting a work shift on her daughter’s birthday/for forgetting to pay a bill. It’s every time she sees Chris’s phone vibrate from the arrival of a text – but she bites down on her tongue, knowing perfectly well who is calling her husband.
Of course, what is on show here is gender politics. The gulf – chasm – in societally acceptable behaviours between men and women. The low, low (low) bar Chris (read, men) has managed to set for himself evident in the way an apology is sufficient for an infidelity, the gold star placed on his shirt for getting some groceries. The admiring slap on the back he gets for doing some DIY.
Contrast that to the silent struggle Amber goes through every minute of every long day to prepare school lunches/arrange visits to the doctors/keep the car running/make sure minimum payments are met on utility bills/buy presents for birthdays/wrap presents/make sure the cake has the right colour icing/get the invites ready/make sure there’s enough meat to put on the barbeque… Oh. And hold down a job too.
This silent labour is almost invisible, never considered when weighing up a woman’s worth. And that complicit silence is necessary for women. Learned. Expected, even. There are to be no grumblings on this disparity; it is accepted as a given. And that enforced maturity too: the way a man can continue his flirtations and beers with the lads throughout his life, but a girl must let go of cheap thrills if she is to meet the requirements of what it is to be a mother.
Such a bleak, unexciting play is high risk, for sure. But if women’s lives are to be represented truthfully, then this is the risk that must be taken, and I applaud Emily Schwend for her bravery. Comparisons may well be made with the naturalism in Annie Baker’s work, but Utility is very much glass half empty to Annie’s glass half full.
The dreariness will alienate some, I get that, but the lives and trials of everyday women are routinely overlooked, marginalised by the male voice and dismissed by the male experience. But they too deserve to be platformed and these voices deserve too to be heard.
As I watched the final scene, Robyn’s Amber sitting in the shadows of her kitchen at night, eyes empty and glazed over, smoking her cigarette slowly, I couldn’t help but think of Springsteen – that great American icon who gave voice and resonance to American working-class lives. This play feels like a Springsteen song, this has the pointlessness of Thunder Road and desperation of Atlantic City – only with the life of an everyday woman at its heart.
There is no upside to Amber’s life, there is no silver lining to her cloud. The purpose of each of her days is obligation, and her only reward is survival. Tomorrow is another day may be Scarlett O’Hara’s cry of hope and resilience, but to this Southern belle it is an affirmation that tomorrow will bring no change, nor hope of one.
Director Caitlin McLeod has taken even more risk with Emily’s slow-pacing by upping the ante with how Amber presents herself in the rare moments when she is alone. The easier (and more overtly dramatic) option would have been to have Amber in a dark emotional state, perhaps weighting these moments with desperate sadness and the crushing of an individual spirit.
Instead, the decision has been taken to present Amber as more numb than broken. And that’s very brave indeed as it weakens the dramatic arc even more – but it is, yet again, more truthful.
That’s not to say that everything is flawless here – for example, the Texan drawl is a struggle for some of the actors – but I’m not going to really break a sweat about this and I’ll tell you why:
Contemporary theatre is loaded with risk. Encouraging new names and new creatives is loaded with risk. This play was written by a woman and directed by another; both relative newcomers. They went with a risky set-up – a caterpillar crawl of a slow burner about a simple life where nothing ever happens – and sought to make poetry of the crushed dreams of the everyday woman. For once, that everyday woman has her moment. You may find her life full of drudgery and boring; you may find her story uninteresting and uninspiring. But that is exactly the point.
Welcome to our world.
Orange Tree Theatre, London, to 7 July, 2018.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Helen Murray.