Review of Oil at the Almeida Theatre starring Anne Marie Duff
Dovetailing the personal and the political, and spanning over 160 years between 1889 to 2051, Ella Hickson's new play Oil is nothing if not serially and seriously ambitious, seeking to provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of how oil has transformed our lives -- but the costs it has also led to, and imagining, too, what the future holds when it finally runs out.
It plays fast and loose with time, as we follow the same mother and daughter over the full course of the play, from 1889 when May is pregnant with Amy and cold, to 2051 when May and Amy -- now both old and cold together -- are huddled against the weather with no oil to keep them warm anymore.
In the first act, set in 1889, an American is seeking to buy a Cornish farm to store and distribute the kerosene he wants to import; May lives there and is newly pregnant. In act two, May is now in Tehran in 1908, with her eight-year-old daughter Amy. Cars are creating a revolution: "It can turn one teaspoon of oil into the strength of two hundred men." But the British Empire has a problem: it has no oil. It is here to gain access to it.
By act three, now in London in 1970, Amy is a belligerent teenager, her mother working for an oil company and dealing with the fallout of Gadaffi taking over Libya. In act four, now set in 2021, Amy is in the desert in Kurdistan, working to atone for the sins of her ex-MP mother, who travels there to try to bring her home. Finally, in 2051, we're back at the family farm in Cornwall where we started -- and a new energy source needs to be harnessed.
Director Carrie Cracknell and her designer Vicki Mortimer have created a fluid, compelling environment for it play out in, and it is greatly enhanced by the deeply committed performances of a cast led by Anne Marie Duff as the mother and Yolanda Kettle as her daughter.
But it sometimes feels like there are five plays struggling to get out here; each of the five acts could be a play in itself. If it's sometimes hard to keep up, it's even harder to care.
What the Press Said...
"A remarkable play that, aside from an opening scene that is as impenetrably dark as a Georges de la Tour painting, is very well directed by Carrie Cracknell and contains one of the best theatrical mother-daughter relationships of recent years."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"I won't reveal too much, except to say that the conclusion is droll, poetic, thought-provoking and terribly sad. The play will, I suspect, divide audiences but I'm not complaining when I say that I can't get it out of my mind."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Feminism itself is held up to scrutiny but the ostensible source of dramatic interest somehow slips through her fingers.."
Dominic Cavendish The Telegraph
"audacious and craftily self-referential piece, which mixes prickly humour with a mischievous intelligence."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard