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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Oil
Almeida Theatre  Autumn 2016

This is a play that is not about what it says it is about. It may not even be about what the playwright thinks it's about. 

That would be no problem if only the audience could be sure of what it actually is about. But neither writer Ella Hickson nor director Carrie Cracknell seems to have made that clarity a major priority. 

Ostensibly it is a potted history of the Oil Age, the two hundred years or so, beginning in the late Nineteenth Century and ending whenever reserves run out, in which the world's industries, economies and progress have been powered by petroleum. 

To tell the story Ella Hickson employs a kind of magical realism, allowing it all to happen in one woman's extended lifetime.

In 1889 she is a Cornwall farmer's wife encountering kerosene lamps for the first time. In 1905 she has somehow settled in Teheran, watching as the British navy drills for oil to power its battleships. 

In 1970, not having visibly aged, she heads a British oil company helplessly standing by as its Libyan operation is nationalised in the rise of OPEC. In 2021 she is in her fifties, an MP who supports the fourth or fifth Iraq War, this time openly to seize that country's oil. 

And in an unspecified far future when the oil has finally been used up, she is at last an old woman experiencing the decline of the West. 

(Meanwhile her daughter follows her own separate magical timeline, in the womb in 1889, ten years old in 1905, fifteen in 1970, in her twenties fifty years later, and finally almost as ancient as her mother.) 

It will help your understanding and enjoyment of the drama if you twig sooner than I did that the oil is really a red herring and not at all what the play is interested in. 

Oil is a play about women, and particularly about mothers and daughters, though what it has to say about them is still murky. 

The mother is fiercely protective of her daughter in the early scenes, and impatient with her callow teenage rebellion in 1970, exhorting her to have ambitions and care about the world around her. 

But in 2021, when the daughter has become a care worker in Iraq, mother wants her to give up all this idealistic foolishness and come home. 

And in the final scene she has an epiphany and announces that they would both have done better with their lives to have found a good man's love and stayed home to have babies. 

You can see what I mean about an unclear message. 

Director Carrie Cracknell does too little to illuminate matters, in at least one case literally. 

To depict the candle-lit world of 1889 the stage is in near darkness for the first half-hour, and you would need to be sitting in the front rows to pick out the actors' faces. 

The passage of time and the setting of each scene rely on between-scene announcements, and neither of the central actresses has been led to signify different ages until the final scene, when a pair of fat suits do much of their acting for them. 

So, although Anne-Marie Duff as the mother and, to a lesser extent, Yolanda Kettle as the daughter do yeoperson work carrying the action, the play doesn't really give them much to do beyond displaying their stamina. 

Oil is not a two-character play, and several other characters come and go, with only Brian Ferguson as a string of hapless orbiting men making much impression. 

The two lead actresses are worth seeing, even if they're not stretched much by their roles. But Oil is underpowered.

Gerald Berkowitz

Buy the script at AMAZON.CO.UK
Review -  Oil  - Almeida Theatre 2016  

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