tue 23/04/2024

Oil, Almeida Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Oil, Almeida Theatre

Oil, Almeida Theatre

Ella Hickson's historical picaresque needs a lot more energy

Calling for kerosene: the dimly lit opening scene of Ella Hickson's 'Oil'

Ambition trumps (if you'll forgive that verb) achievement in Ella Hickson's new play, a long-aborning exercise in time-travel whose audacity of vision can't override one's impression that the final result is an effortful slog.

Tracing a mother-daughter relationship across several continents (not to mention 162 years), Oil doesn't so much conjoin the political and the personal as graft various musings on the topic of its title atop a distended family drama that only flickers into life in its final scene. 

Hickson bookends her action in Cornwall then (1889) and still to come (2051) while taking us to the Persian and Iraqi deserts – not to mention 1970 Hampstead – en route, only to arrive at an extended climactic exchange between the querulous May (Anne-Marie Duff) and her daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle) that would be right at home amid the anguished familial wreckage of, say, Grey Gardens. It's unexpected, to say the least, to find these two gifted women clambering into fat suits as they prepare for that defining scene, but no amount of visual surprise is able to compensate for a fundamental tension that goes missing throughout. 

Carrie Cracknell's production bravely opens with a dimly lit portrait of pre-kerosene England that locates the pregnant May amidst a hardscrabble family existence on a Cornish farm. The same ever-determined character will leave this behind as she traverses time and space, accompanied all the while by the shifting and sometimes shifty vagaries of energy-related realpolitik.

Illuminated by candlelight, the scene gives off the shadowy, shimmering glow of a canvas by Joseph Wright of Derby – Lucy Carter's lighting is a wonder throughout – only for Hickson to forsake that quasi-Lawrentian locale in favour of 1908 Tehran, where May reappears with an eight-year-old child but no job and the promise of travel in something wondrous called a motor car. Mother and daughter have by this point become a self-described "little team", though it's hard to know quite what to make of Hickson's implication by the close that the pair, for all their wordliness and globetrotting, cannot exist except by one another's often tetchy side (Kettle and Duff pictured above).

The middle scene finds May living in detached Hampstead comfort as an oil company hotshot, prompted to debate the specifics of Libyan law while the teenage Amy introduces mum to her new boyfriend, Nate (Sam Swann). Our heroine is soon after revealed anew as a one-time politico who has come to 2021 Iraq to take the now-grown activist that is Amy home to Britain. As has by this point become the norm, quotidian conversation about what to eat coexists with various de facto position papers that get dropped into proceedings like David Hare on an off day. Thoughts of the senior British dramatist are additionally prompted by memories of his mother-daughter struggle in Amy's View, a play whose title could serve just as well here. 

If that last encounter with its off-kilter humour works best, that may be due to Hickson belatedly finding an instantly arresting voice propelled by its own dry wit, not to mention the arrival of a corporate emissary in the form of Miss Fan Wang (Christina Tam, excellent) to remind us that by 2051, China will doubtless be calling the shots. (The polyglot Amy turns out to be a dab hand at Mandarin.)

It comes as something of a relief, too, when a fussy, over-busy production (Vicki Mortimer's set is pictured above) calms down, leaving off the ambient visual and aural effects to let its two leading players have a field day with the absurdism Hickson places before them. Is depletion, whether social or geopolitical, the inevitable lot of both the cosmos and the individual, the conjoined self represented by the anagrammatic nature of Amy and May's names? It seems telling both that Oil finishes mid-sentence and that it really only achieves dramatic lift-off as it's about to end. 



Quotidian conversation about what to eat coexists with various position papers that get dropped into proceedings like David Hare on an off day


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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