The world premiere of “Oil”, a new play by Ella Hickson, is an ambitious production of an ambitious text. Absorbing, strong on character and making the audience work to understand what’s going on, you almost feel when you leave as if you have attended something important. Almost.
The play has an intricate structure: it is divided into four thematically related sections which take us from 1889 to 2051. The first section in Cornwall lays the scene by showing how tough life was before the advent of artificial lighting. The first sight of a kerosene lamp, interesting how in all the scenes some salesmani always arrives to push the action forward, transforms May – the slightly rebellious young mother – and she embarks on her journey through time in pursuit of… what? Progress? Happiness? Fulfilment?
As a servant in early twentieth century Persia, May is first confronted with the geopolitical realities of resources in underdeveloped countries and how the rich countries try and obtain them mostly for their benefit. Yet decades later, it is 1970, she is actually the CEO of an oil company herself involved in exploiting the product and presumably the natives.
The final section, set in a future where oil has run out and the torch of research and alternative power sources has passed from the West to China is spoiled by ridiculous fat suits for mother and daughter (why does old have to = fat?) and, even accepting this is not a realistic play, simplistic and hard to believe premises.
“Oil” is post-modernist literature slapped onto the stage in generous doses – the name David Mitchell was being bandied about and indeed you can see similarities in the way Hickson uses time, space and recurring characters or types to tell an overarching story.
What stops this from being a better play? Problems with both text and production. The production suffers from under-lighting. The first section looks like Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” but that is fine because it goes with the writing. However this dimness spills over onto other scenes and interferes with the enjoyment of proceedings.
The problem at the heart of the text is, I suspect, harder to resolve. “Oil” has no solutions but the problem of oil identified here – that it is simply running out – is only posited in the final section which, to reiterate, does not work dramatically.
At another level the play is also about the struggle between generations which doesn’t change even if the characters shift in time. May/Amy the anagrammatical mother and daughter condemned to love/hate each other. It’s “The Story of Isaac” in reverse with the older generation prepared to sacrifice itself for the new ones and the young ones saying “thanks, not in my name”. It is easy to be dismissive of society when you enjoy its comforts. Amy consistently opposes her mother but we don’t get the sense of any alternative vision, just resentment.
Plus the reality is the wonder which the family experience when they saw the kerosene comes from the new possibilities of bright lighting – which for much of humanity came from oil. It may almost be time to move on but don’t denigrate the past because it is what made us what we are. The hundreds of mobile phones and tablets which flicker on the minute a play ends are all the creatures of this scientific progress
So what we have in the end is a twist on the traditional family saga which portents much but delivers rather less, admittedly in a highly entertaining manner.
There are towering performances from Anne-Marie Duff (surely now one of the greatest theatrical talents of her generation) as May, and Yolanda Kettle as her eternal daughter. This is far from perfect but it is certainly interesting to watch.
By Joe Moss, author of Atacama