“I left a man I loved so much, I thought I was going to die. I didn’t die. It makes you strong”
I wasn’t 100% sure I’d make it along to Oil – my original date being derailed by travel chaos and a busy Autumn schedule meaning I could barely find space. But space I found eventually and whilst I’m glad that I got to see Ella Hickson’s new play, for me it didn’t quite live up to the (admittedly high) expectations that had been built up over its run at the Almeida. It’s still good, and often very good, especially in its lead performances from Anne-Marie Duff and Yolanda Kettle, but I just didn’t connect with the play at large.
There’s no doubting the scale of the ambition here, the epic form tackled with gusto as the play’s timeline stretches over 150 years with mother and daughter May and Amy playing out their five scenes ranging from the late nineteenth century to the near future. And whilst society’s connection to and reliance upon oil is under the microscope, so too is the evolving role of women in that society, its changes explored by the time-travelling nature of the writing and the visionary production by Carrie Cracknell.
We first meet May as a Cornish farmer’s wife in 1889 who receives a visit from an American who has a newly invented kerosene lamp, which ignites in her a deep curiosity which is then played out in Persian oilfields and London boardrooms across the twentieth century and into the future, back home in a resource-poor Cornwall. As May’s career advances into executive and then MP territory, her progress is measured against the deterioration of her relationship with her daughter but also the global impact of being part of such a voracious petrochemical industry.
Cracknell’s production is superbly designed – Vicki Mortimer bringing in multimedia aspects intelligently and the layers of darkness that Lucy Carter’s lighting creates are remarkably textured. A quality supporting cast cover an array of subsidiary characters effectively, and there are moments when Duff and Kettle are spellbindingly excellent. But for all the magical reality of its conceit, I didn’t buy the unlikeliness of some of the scenarios and a disjointed feel prevented all of Oil’s themes coming together to deliver the kind of impact I was expecting.