Almeida Theatre, London (*****)

© Richard H Smith, Tom Mothersdale (Joss)

© Richard H Smith, Tom Mothersdale (Joss)

So the `new world order’ is upon us but maybe not quite as many of us might have expected or hoped for. And if the new order of things continues as recently indicated, Ella Hickson’s vision will surely turn out to be bleakly prophetic. Oil is one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre new writing I’ve seen this year, or maybe even for some years. The sheer scope of Hickson’s imagination is breath-taking, embracing as it does history, empire, greed, finite resources, the environment, war, family, the future, with women – mothers and daughters and career versus family – right at its very centre.

© Richard H Smith, Yolanda Kettle as Amy, Anne-Marie Duff as May, mother and daughter on collision courses...

© Richard H Smith, Yolanda Kettle as Amy, Anne-Marie Duff as May, mother and daughter on collision courses…

In other hands, such ambition might have become seriously unstuck. But Hickson’s touch is sure and is matched by the detail and flair of Carrie Cracknell’s production which expands on Hickson’s intentions always with careful integrity matched with scintillating ensemble work.

Hickson’s vision starts in the darkness of agricultural subsistence, a family whose whole being is regulated by the weather, where the male takes as he wishes (some very Lawrentian undertones surface here). Enter a stetson wearing salesman from the US (where else) with promises of improvement through light from an oil lamp. Hey presto, their lives are about to change for ever…

`And the woman walks out into the night and keeps on walking, and keeps on walking…’ The woman is May, defiant, independent-minded. She will recur in each segment as Hickson works through the journey of the fossil fuel through the 20th century up to the present day and beyond, the wars fought for it, the desire for it, the raison d’etres that fall in its wake.

© Richard H Smith, Anne-Marie Duff as May and Patrick Kennedy as Officer Samuel, getting friendly in the British Empire...

© Richard H Smith, Anne-Marie Duff as May and Patrick Kennedy as Officer Samuel, getting friendly in the British Empire…

But always in different forms, it is also the story of May and Amy’s relationship – May arguing, planning and ultimately determined to protect her daughter from what she sees as `imprisonment’ in marriage and motherhood until the penultimate scene when beginning to age, she conducts a complete volte face.

Single and alone is to be feared. But not for Amy. In a remarkable speech, single still represents freedom, to sleep alone and eat a boiled egg for breakfast, if she so chooses.

As May, Anne-Marie Duff is stupendous. Oil’s galvanising heart and core, in what should be an award-winning performance, her emotional canvas maps sexually ravenous, fiercely maternal, calculating, corporate steeliness and at the last cackling decline.

© Richard H Smith, cast of OIl

© Richard H Smith, cast of OIl

Of all the vistas which Hickson subjects us to, this final futuristic dystopian vision is perhaps the most disturbing – a world returned to basic living where oil has run out but where a Chinese saleswoman appears, as did the initial American oil lamp salesman, this time offering nuclear fusion and helium 3 mined from the moon as progress.

Yet Hickson refuses to leave us entirely on a downbeat as Yolanda Kettle’s equally wonderful truculent, demanding, brave, and bitter Amy returns as a modern young woman with an understanding of her relationship with her mother that fades even as she speaks it on the wind…`realised that her control freakery was just love, so much love…’

Terrific, majorly impressive and I don’t doubt for some, life-changing…

Oil runs at the Almeida Theatre to Nov 26, 2016.
Review first published on this site, Nov 16, 2016

A new play by Ella Hickson


May: Anne-Marie Duff
Mr Farruk: Nabil Elouahabi
Thomas/Mr Thomas/Tom: Brian Ferguson
Ma Singer: Ellie Haddington
Samuel/Officer Samuel/Sammy: Patrick Kennedy
Amy: Yolanda Kettle
Joss: Tom Mothersdale
Anne/Ana/Aminah: Lara Sawalha
William Whitcomb/Nate: Sam Swann
Fanny/Fan Wang: Christina Tam

Direction: Carrick Cracknell
Design: Vicki Mortimer
Movement Direction: Joseph Alford
Lighting: Lucy Carter
Dramaturg: Jenny Worton
Composition: Stuart Earl
Sound: Peter Rice
Video: Luke Halls

Casting: Julia Horan CDG

Resident Direction: Taio Lawson
Costume Supervision: Claire Wardroper
Design Assistant: Matt Hellyer
Associate Lighting Designer: Max Narula
Sound Assistant: Harry Johnson
Video Associate: Alex Uragallo
Video Programmer: Dan Bond
Dialect: Kay Welch
Farsi Translations and Dialect: Haydeh Eftekhar
Arabic Translations and Dialect: Sylvia El Helo
Mandarin Translations: Cennydd John
Pinyin Translations: Ruhua Hele
Mandarin Dialect: Jessica Dong

World premiere of Oil at Almeida Theatre, Oct 7, 2016