Emotional labour. American academic Arlie Hochschild coined the phase in her 1983 book The Managed Heart but it’s taken decades to filter into everyday language. And, even though it has to some extent become part of the feminist conversation, it’s still one of the last things women think about when they’re trying to smash the patriarchy. Half the time, we don’t realise we are doing it. It’s not just about the cooking and the cleaning. It’s about the caring. Making sure birthday cards are bought and posted for never-seen relatives (yours and HIS); making sure both sets of grandparents get equal billing; making sure everyone is having a nice time.
In Emily Schwend’s Yale Drama prize-winning play, Amber gets back together with her husband, Chris. She’s been staying at her mother’s with kids; he’s been sleeping on his brother’s sofa. It’s best for everyone they get back together. Isn’t it? He’s sorry for whatever he’s done (which we never find out, but the house needs major repairs and it’s unlikely the two are unrelated) and has vowed to change his ways. He even works a few hours here and there. He may or may not have a wandering eye.
Even though they are back in the family home, it’s frazzled Amber who works two jobs and keeps the house. She packs lunch boxes at 5am after a night shift. He gets out of bed. He helps. A bit. He tells her she is in a mood. Because what more could a woman want than a husband who just exists as a fact?
What Amber wants is a great birthday party for her kid. She’s determined to give her eight-year-old a good show, despite money being in short supply. But Chris forgets to pay the electricity bill, plunging the birthday party into darkness. Amber’s starting to think he’s not worth the bother. More labour with no reward.
In one of the many small, beautifully observed moments in Utility (which really should have just been called Emotional Labour), Amber reports to her brother-in-law Jim the reaction her big gift reveal of a new bike got from her eldest child: uurgh, gross, pink. She laughs it off with slight dismay. But it’s heart breaking. You know her heart is breaking. What’s even more heart breaking that it’s her brother-in-law she has to tell. Her mother and husband are of one mind. What she’s got should be enough.
The slowburn show is confined to a single kitchen location, which consumes the Orange Tree’s stage. And props are as packed in as these telling moments: Chris flings his coffee cup in the sink, his brother swills it out after him; a birthday cake gets dropped on the floor, which Chris thinks is no big deal, Jim tries to fix it. Schwend’s subtext drips with repressed emotions. But as the four characters navigate acres of cupboards, slices of bread and dirty boots, we sail at times uncomfortably toward poverty porn. And what saves the play’s from the accusation – it’s sheer Americanness – somehow, in turn, stops us connecting with Amber’s true desperation. It’s an alien world of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which looks a little too clean, and the acres of kitchen paraphernalia clutter up emotional chasm Schwend wants us to peer in to.
Utility is on until 7 July 2018 at the Orange Tree Theatre. Click here for more details.