Theatre Review: Oil by Ella Hickson at The Almeida, London

19th Century Cornwall. Expectant mother, May (Anne-Marie Duff) finds life particularly hard living with her poor in-laws on their failing farm. The winter is harsh. Relations with her mother-in-law Ma Singer (Ellie Haddington) are tense and her brother-in-law Samuel (Patrick Kennedy) resents the passionate and fertile marriage she enjoys with his brother Joss (Tom Mothersdale).

When American oil prospector William Whitcomb (Sam Swann) offers to buy the land for a handsome sum it further divides the Singer family. Fast forward a few decades to Iran, 1908. Exploitative Western powers have started capitalising on the discovery of oil in the region.

Following the money, domestic worker and single mum, May, drags her only daughter, 10-year old Amy, (Yolanda Kettle) to the Middle-East. Several decades later still, now an oil company exec, May is in an ideological stand-off with a teenaged Amy. Filled with the righteous indignation of newfound activism, she openly deplores her mother’s profession, whilst surrounded by the appliances powered by May’s line of business.

Late 21st Century. Embittered May and Amy are living in a part-primitive, part-advanced dystopian England. The world supply of oil has almost run out and is being mercilessly rationed. East has taken over West as the New Imperialist. Mandarin is the lingua franca and China monopolises new energy-generating technologies.

The intersection between personal stories and grand, historical narratives is the pivot on which Ella Hickson’s high-concept play ‘Oil’ turns. May’s époque-jumping adventures in fossil fuel and motherhood is a microcosm of the havoc wreaked by an insatiable desire for wealth, control and creature comforts. Western superpowers’ rapacious foreign policy is embodied in May’s 1970s incarnation and her ice cold reaction to the news that her Libyan-based company is about to be nationalised by Col. Gaddafi. When her junior colleague Tom (Brian Ferguson) points out that employees’ lives could be endangered by local unrest, May’s only concern is the protection of Company assets.

‘Oil’ is straightforward in intent and ambitious in execution. No issue there as Hickson is largely successful. The story is compelling and the casting is solid through and through. The central performances by Duff and Kettle are as skilled and emotionally nimble as the roles require.

Yet ‘Oil’ feels like the dramatic equivalent of thinking out loud. This should be fine for what is often an insightful dialectic. However, there are times when the message is a bit fuzzy.  The recurring theme of female solitude, for instance, is problematic in that it is at once represented as empowering and yet true love and fulfilment are seemingly confined to romance. The intensity of May and Amy’s deeply entwined relationship (reflected in their anagrammatic monikers) supposedly offers a counterpoint on one hand and an inadequate substitute on the other. Theirs is a parasitic dynamic, not unlike consumers’ over-dependency on non-renewable fuel. The thought is almost as gloomy as Hickson’s imagining of the world post-overconsumption.

Personnel:

Written by Ella Hickson

Directed by Carrie Cracknell                    

Resident Director – Taio Lawson

Set Design – Vicki Mortimer

Music – Stuart Earl

Casting – Julia Horan

Costume Design – Claire Wardroper

Cast:

Anne-Marie Duff – May

Nabil Elouahabi- Mr Farouk

Brian Ferguson – Thomas/Mr Thomas/Tom

Ellie Haddington – Ma Singer

Patrick Kennedy – Samuel/Officer Samuel/Sammy

Yolanda Kettle – Amy

Tom Mothersdale – Joss

Lara Sawalha – Anna/Ana/Aminah

Sam Swann – William Whitcomb/Nate

Christina Tam - Fanny/Fan Wang

*Oil continues at the Almeida Theatre, London until November 26, 2016.