PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Once again I don't remember specifically booking a preview but it looks like the professional critics are in tomorrow.
So the next time we see May it's 1910 but her daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle) is only
10 years old, and they're making ends meet in Iran, where British officers are
negotiating for the rights to the country's oil reserves.
A further jump takes us to 1970, and May as the head of an oil company, ruthlessly
refusing to negotiate with Qaddafi over the safety of her employees in Libya as it
involves giving away half her company's claim there; while the final two time shifts
after the interval eventually take us well into the future. Carrie Cracknell's
production opens in candlelight, adding to the grimness of the scene and showing how
tempting an easy solution for light and heat is.
Duff is obviously the star turn here and gets plenty to get her teeth into in the
role of May, a simple, gutsy heroine who quickly turns into a much more complicated,
darker figure who uses her daughter as justification for pursuing a ruthlessly
selfish and destructive path (she does at least also get the night's funniest line
to lighten things up - "Are you staying for dinner or have you eaten already?") But
Kettle increasingly catches up to her to emerge as the other lead, as the
mother-daughter relationship becomes the focal point, and there's luxury casting in
the smaller roles, with Brian Ferguson as one of Kay's unsuccessful suitors, and
Patrick Kennedy as a charming but ultimately vicious army officer, although Ellie
Haddington feels criminally underused in her one scene as Joss' hard-as-nails
Oil feels like the sort of play that'll divide people - although Ian broadly
liked it, he found the unsympathetic lead quite a major obstacle - and though I
can't say I loved every minute I definitely found it interesting and intriguing.
More so in terms of form than subject matter - there's little surprise in finding it
a damning indictment of the dependence on and overuse of a limited resource. But as
the play ends in an almost Beckett-like (but without the "being completely
unwatchable" element) sequence of the two women hidden away in a room without power,
questions over exactly who they are arise. The fact that May and Amy are anagrams is
relevant, and there's a question mark over whether this has really been Cloud
Nine-style time travel, or generations of mothers and daughters repeating the
same cycle over centuries (we hear that one of the versions of Amy has walked out on
a husband she thought she couldn't live without, a recurring phrase from her mother's story.)
So although there's moments where it's confusing in the wrong ways, for the most
part Hickson succeeds in making her play raise questions in the right ones. Going
for something epic is something I always find admirable but risky; I'd say Hickson
and Cracknell have pulled it off, without really creating a classic in the process.
But on a purely practical note, kudos has to go the Almeida for programming an
ambitious new play with a 7pm start to evening shows. As it turns out it comes in
well under 3 hours, which presumably was something they weren't confident of before
rehearsals started*, so in the end a satisfyingly thorny piece of theatre even gets
a sensible finish time.
Oil by Ella Hickson is booking until the 26th of November at the Almeida Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval
Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.
*it's a lesson the Old Vic could do with learning; having failed to spot the
entirely predictable fact that King Lear might be a bit of a long'un, today
they've had to bring all the performances forward by half an hour, no doubt causing
them one hell of a headache when hundreds of people fail to get the message.