Oil – Almeida Theatre.
(Seen at the afternoon performance on 29th October 2016.)
From pre-publicity at the time I booked, I was led to believe this would be a 3 hour plus epic, exploring oil and its part in Western Industrialised history. I have to admit I booked a seat with extra legroom… and was quite relieved to find out on arrival that it would run a mere two hours thirty – though the first half would consume one hour twenty of that.
Still, it’s the first time I’ve managed to see Anne-Marie Duff work live on stage, and combined with some excellent performances by Yolanda Kettle as her daughter Amy, Nabil Elouahabi as Mr. Farouk, Patrick Kennedy as Samuel (and name variations across the years) and those around them, there is plenty of talent to see the piece through. Director Carrie Cracknell keeps everything moving as far as she can, and there’s note to for Vicki Mortimer’s simple yet evocative set-design, particularly the opulent Eastern and home kitchen scenes; with actors waiting in full view among appropriate items.
The trouble is, despite all combined efforts, writer Ella Hickson does appear to lose control of her material in the course of attempting to combine stylish structure, thought-provoking messages, moving history and theatrical symbolism – mostly simultaneously.
It would be wrong to condemn her efforts entirely as pretentious, because – “foreign language” interludes aside – they are honest tries from someone whose third scene proves a tremendous ability to write personal relationships and accompanying dialogue.
Sadly, it all seems over-wrought from the start. Beginning in an 1800s farmhouse, with a demonstration of how cold and dark it is for the “peasants” (a “Mr Burns” throwback for audiences, as lighting designer Lucy Carter goes for an all-candle lighting approach) and Ms Duff gets a public cold bath. A hefty “we will buy you” message, and clumsy “hand” device are delivered in six times the length necessary. Oh, and we see an oil lamp for the first time, courtesy of a travelling salesman (dead symbolic – as we travel for oil).
The first crazy “interlude” follows as some weird vocal ramblings and blurry projections transport us – as they will again between the other scenes – through time. Probably there to scare audiences into remaining seated rather than escaping, perhaps…
Scene two, early 1900s, Iran, a colonial plot to get our “hands” on the oil, a nauseatingly silly “theft – look, aren’t I clever, a woman steals, we all steal” moment. Actually, nicely played with Joseph Alford’s movement well executed… but again saying nothing much.
Third scene, most successful. A 70s kitchen, sparky work by all, and the only time the show flowed with a lovely unselfconscious form of play from all. A couple of deserved (if predictable) laughs from the audience too.
A break, then two “future” scenes. Near future, 2021, when a war-torn country shouts at both our patronising approach to them and ‘guilts’ us for interfering in the name of fuel. Logic starts to fail when (from the previous scene) it’s rightly pointed out that the relationship began as mutual aid and that internal politics after that actually caused issues we could sort. Oh, and envelopes of cash again – she really is on it, style-wise, our author.
The final “huddle round a candle” of 2051 was simply a laughable end. A salesman (echo of first scene) turns up with a miniature nuclear reactor solution… to a problem which couldn’t happen as we already use less oil than ever and will continue to develop other solutions. A fact totally ignored by Ms Hickson.
There’s a great 70 minute play wrapped in far too much personal agenda, alas; and I just couldn’t buy a single word of her conclusions, though appreciated the research going into a fairly unpromising premise.
Thematically, it’s interesting, but unless a fan of the actors and director, who are blameless, this really isn’t a ticket worth mining for.