Review: Oil

October 20, 2016
  • Rating: ★★★★★

Ella Hickson’s hugely ambitious new play knits together a sprawling 160 year geo-political soap-opera with a touching – but never candy-coated – story about a mother and daughter.

Almost unfathomably dense – six years in the writing – it follows the trajectory of the oil industry from its early days as an energy source of apparently limitless potential, to its inevitable demise in the not-too-distant future.

The play begins in 1889, in the near-darkness of a Cornish farm. A freezing family are gathered around a few meagre candles when an American oilman comes knocking. May – played by the excellent Anne-Marie Duff – is hopelessly in love with her husband but sneaks away to chase the newcomer, sensing he will provide for her unborn baby.

Over five scenes we follow May and her daughter Amy through time – Persia in 1908, Hampstead in 1970, the Middle-East in 2021, a dystopian UK in 2051 – with the pair ageing only a few years each time. Duff moves seamlessly between the iterations of her character, shifting from feisty to sassy to savvy to jaded, never less than captivating.

The dialogue is light and often funny, but layered with callbacks to past events, with characters in different time-periods repeating the words and actions – and mistakes – of those before them.

The macro reflects the micro and vice versa; our dependence on oil isn’t a simple case of greed, it’s about the human instinct to look after our own, even at the expense of others, to look after the present at the expense of the future. What May does for Amy reflects what decades of foreign policy have done for the west.

The handful of times Hickson’s play trips up are when it inevitably over-reaches; during scene and costume changes (which take place in view by the side of the open stage) we’re presented with projections depicting the more overtly negative aspects of the oil industry – war, environmental destruction, death – while the actors MC over pulsing, rhythmic music. In a play that prides itself on complexity, these interludes feel didactic, sacrificing nuance for the fleeting high of righteous indignation.

The final scene is perhaps the most polarising; a dystopian UK is essentially controlled by China, which treats us with the contempt and condescension we have traditionally reserved for foreigners. It robs the play of some of its historical immediacy, but it’s a deliciously dour finale, a warning of where our short-sighted instincts seem destined to lead.

First published in City A.M.