Utility review – slow-burning drama about a mother under pressure

Watching Emily Schwend’s prize-winning play about the daily pressures facing a working mother, I was reminded both of The Flick and John by her fellow American, Annie Baker.

Even if Schwend’s play, at a mere 95 minutes, seems positively headlong in comparison with Baker’s epics, there is the same patient attention to detail and delight in what William Blake called “the holiness of minute particulars”. Schwend’s focus is on Amber, an east Texan who has to cope with three kids, two jobs and the return of her unreliable husband, Chris. In fact, Chris is an extra burden on Amber’s life since he brings in little money, forgets to pay the electricity bill and is barely capable of blowing up the balloons for an eight-year-old’s birthday party.

There were times when I wished Amber would break free from her shackles or at least rage against her jerk of a husband, but I guess Schwend’s point is that, given there are always school lunches to pack and household jobs to be done, there is little room for manoeuvre.

Extra burden … Robert Lonsdale (Chris) and Robyn Addison (Amber) in Utility. Photograph: Helen Murray

Caitlin McLeod’s production rightly never rushes things and Robyn Addison avoids the temptation to play Amber as a joyless drudge. Instead, she makes her a bright, attractive woman who, recalling her younger self, wistfully remarks: “I miss that person I used to be.” What Addison makes you feel, as she cuts yet another round of peanut butter sandwiches, is the sense of Amber’s wasted potential. She is well supported by Robert Lonsdale as her feckless husband, Jackie Clune as her disapproving mother and Matt Sutton as her taciturn brother-in-law and, even if it’s a slow-burn play, Schwend pays moving homage to female endurance.

At Orange Tree, Richmond, until 7 July. Box office: 020-8940 3633.

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