Anne-Marie Duff is the oil that makes this production power through. She shines with a real ferocity in Ella Hickman’s bold new play, Oil, which is an ambitious epic by any standard. Duff’s brilliant performance takes on the Oil Age, and the relationship she has with Yolanda Kettle’s Amy is both defined by and a victim of humanity’s obsession with Oil and all it brings. Sombre, funny, fluid and toxic, Duff and Kettle mine the play for all its worth and, through them, humanity’s inevitable future seems brutally clear.
War started the day we decided that we had a right to be warm even when the sun isn’t shining.
A son is a son till he gets him a wife but a daughter is a daughter the whole of her life.
No one owned the Earth until people arrived and said they did.
New writing is vital if theatre is to have a continued existence. Popular plays need to be written to keep audiences happy, but other types of play are equally necessary: political plays; state-of-the-nation plays; plays that utilise new forms, new techniques; plays that challenge, provoke and teach; plays that inspire or encourage; plays that speak to all in a unique, refreshing way.
Ella Hickman’s Oil is such a play. Breath-taking in scope, imaginative in execution, funny and troubling, Oil is compelling and entertaining in equal measure. If there is a better new play this season, that will be astonishing.
Oil has five Acts and they span the period 1889 to 2051. In 1889 Oil was just starting to be a new force for development and change in the world; by 2051 Hickman suggests, with good cause, that the time of Oil will have all but passed. Using that Oil arc as a basis, the play examines life in the Oil Age but through a unique lens.
In 1889, May is the wife of Joss Singer, a farmer on a property in Cornwall. They are desperately poor, living in the winter without much heating, light being provided by candles. May is pregnant and much in love with her husband, Joss. When William Whitcomb, representing oil interests, appears unexpectedly and offers to buy the family property for a considerable mark-up, tensions erupt and anger burns as brightly as the kerosene lamp Whitcomb demonstrates for the family.
Having seen the light of the future, May walks off the property into the dark winter, her unborn daughter (Joss has expressed his contempt at the prospect of a daughter) an unwitting companion, to pursue Whitcomb and the better life his presence offers.
In 1908, May and her ten year old daughter Amy are in Tehran. So is the British Government, seeking to get its hands on Persian oilfields. Then, in 1970, May is a top executive in an Oil company and Amy is her promiscuous, rebellious 15 year old daughter. Libya is making a stand and demanding a proper share of the ownership of the oilfields being pumped dry for the world.
Then, in 2021, in a Kurdistan desert, some time after the Second Iraq War (which had a nuclear solution) Amy and May clash when May, a former Government minister who refused to make deals with terrorists, is covertly arranging an infrastructure deal to support the final exploitation of the oilfields.
Finally, in 2051, May and Amy are back on a property in Cornwall, struggling to keep warm just as the Singer family were all those years earlier. An unexpected visitor, Fan Wong, arrives to offer them a new energy source, Toroid, which is powered by Helium 3 harvested from the Moon. New possibilities, old reactions.
This is not a time travel play and nor is it some kind of exercise in magic. Although May appears in five time zones and Amy in four, they are not the same characters throughout. They represent the same type of mother-daughter relationship across the ages, a relationship that changes and regenerates, but which has powerful constants, intriguing resonances.
What is most fascinating about Hickman’s approach is that each Act presents a different mother/daughter experience in the Age of Oil even though themes are repeated, leitmotif like. Mothers seek to protect and care for their daughters always, even though the daughters might not see it that way. Daughters always try to rebel, to challenge, to differentiate themselves, but often they become a version of their mother which is closer to the original than they might think. It is no coincidence that their names – May and Amy – are anagrams. They reflect each other precisely.
Oil, of course, is the inspiration for and the accomplice in chief of Capitalism. Capitalism is the natural enemy of women as it encourages, fundamentally, their oppression. So it is fascinating to watch this play focus on the female experience in the maelstrom of the storm created by the discovery and exploitation of natural resources.
But Hickman is not content with a sprawling, incredibly ambitious epic narrative about women and Oil. She plays with form in significant ways. Absurdism is employed with skill and Impressionistic touches are also utilised, including the odd snatch of Justin Bieber. Music, voiceovers, video projections, a sinkhole that sends the past back to the past – Hickman weaves all manner of unexpected happenings into the play: the moment when Joss literally tears up May’s 1970’s world is genuinely disturbing, profound and unsettling.
Carrie Cracknell’s production allows every crease and fold of Hickman’s vision into view. The staging is as bold and clear as the writing. Vicki Mortimer’s set, likewise, perfectly serves the text. The main action takes place on a centre stage. To each side of the stage, props and people are arranged. Often the cast sit in those areas, watching proceedings, waiting to enter. The voyeuristic feel is intentional – the world has watched the Age of Oil rise and fall; it has all played out on the world stage.
Lucy Carter’s lighting is exceptional. In the first Act, the gloom is intense, bitterly cold and real. The colonial glow is terrific in the second Act and the bright, brittle illumination of the 70s stands in marked contrast to the hot desert darkness in Act Four and the futuristic dimness in the final Act. Throughout, Stuart Earl’s original music is deftly integrated and Luke Halls’ videos add, never detract, from the theatrical spectacle.
Even with all these elements properly aligned, Hickson’s play is too long. The fourth Act seems unnecessary; nothing especially new is delivered there. With that Act excised, this would really be an unbeatable theatrical experience. With it, Oil is exacting and rewarding theatre but it splutters and slows in the fourth Act, before gaining the final burst of energy for the finale.
Across the board, there are first rate performances, led by the remarkable Anne-Marie Duff.
Duff burns slowly but passionately at first, her performance accelerating, gaining intensity and fiery depth as the play progresses. Eventually, the power wanes, quite deliberately, and Duff squeezes out the last vestiges of energy in the final scene. She calibrates her performance to reflect the rise and fall of Oil, the force which reflects the essence of her May. She is smoky, radiant, spiky and unyielding – its a terrific, totally engaged, high octane piece of acting.
Yolanda Kettle steps up to Duff’s level and matches her intensity and commitment while carving out her own particular character. She is lovely as a ten year old, spiteful and out-of-control as a teenager up for cunnilingus on the kitchen table, and in blisteringly acute mode in the final scene, where the care roles are reversed. The scenes where Duff and Kettle spar as mother and daughter are the play’s best moments. Her final plaintiff query is quietly devastating.
Tom Mothersdale makes Joss sensual and old fashioned, a real man of the land, a lover of tradition and simplicity. The electricity between he and Duff is remarkable. Ellie Haddington is terrific as Joss’ plain-speaking plain-living Mother. She rules the Cornish farm with an iron will, a bitter tongue, but a warm heart when tradition requires it.
As Joss’ jealous brother, Samuel, Patrick Kennedy is splendidly awful, a malignant presence in the gloomy cold farmhouse. In Persia, he is terrific as the entitled Officer Samuel, a creepy aristocratic cad who offers a new thought to the 1908 May.
Brian Ferguson is similarly excellent in his roles, but especially as Thomas, the maitre d’ of a gala event, who has his eye on 1908 May and, in the play’s most excruciating moment, offers her an alternative life. Ferguson plays that scene perfectly when it could so easily be overdone. His turn as May’s corporate underling in the 1970 scene is finely judged too.
William Whitcomb is the snake-oil salesman who brings kerosene into May’s life and Sam Swann plays him sweetly and with the correct degree of smarmy confidence. His line-dance routine with Duff is hysterical and a much needed tonal shift when it occurs. He is also excellent as the sex hungry Nate, Amy’s boyfriend in 1970. He plays Nate as gormless and dimwitted, a clear and complete contrast to his Whitcomb.
Christina Tam is delicious as the brittle, pragmatic and futuristic Fan Wang, and Lara Sawalha excels in all of her versions of the Anne character, with her Aminah especially fine. Nabil Elouahabi is pitch perfect as the steely negotiator, Mr Farouk, the man who represents Libya in the surprising 1970 “negotiations”.
Oil is a tremendous theatrical achievement. Hickman, Cracknell, Mortimer, Duff and Kettle make a powerful dramatic statement at the Almeida – one that everyone should experience and contemplate.