Thursday, 13 October 2016

Theatre review: Oil

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: Once again I don't remember specifically booking a preview but it looks like the professional critics are in tomorrow.

Ella Hickson's plays have been steadily growing in size and scope, and Oil at the Almeida sees her take on not just a global issue but an epic story that spans centuries. In 19th century Cornwall, May (Anne-Marie Duff) lives on her husband's remote farm, a hand-to-mouth existence but she's genuinely in love with her husband Joss (Tom Mothersdale,) and the fact they can't keep their hands off each other makes it no surprise that she's pregnant. But when William Whitcomb (Sam Swann) arrives from America with a ridiculously generous offer to buy the farm as a UK base for his kerosene business, Joss turn him down and May can't forgive his lack of ambition. She steps out into the snow and on a journey that now takes on a surreal note. Because in the style of Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, a few years pass for May, but many more pass in the world around her.

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 mother.

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.

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