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Anne-Marie Duff is magnificent in this audacious epic about oil, emancipation and dependency
More 'Cloud Atlas' than 'There Will Be Blood' - and with intriguing echoes of The TEAM's 'Mission Drift' and David Mitchell’s ‘The Bone Clocks’ - Ella Hickson's new play 'Oil' is an epic about the black stuff, but perhaps not the epic about the black stuff you were expecting.
A pointedly femme-centric affair, Carrie Cracknell's haunting production draws deliberately provocative parallels between the age of oil and the age of female emancipation. It follows strong, sardonic May (Anne-Marie Duff) through some five incarnations: beginning as a Cornish housewife in 1889 who questions her husband's refusal to sell his farm to a big shot American who wants to replace it with an oil depot, moving through early twentieth century Tehran, London in the ’70s, near future Baghdad and far future Cornwall. Pregnant in the first scene, in all the others she is accompanied by her bright, wilful daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle).
It is an audacious piece of writing that partly thrills via the sheer audacity of being a generation-skipping epic about oil and feminism. But it is even more than that, a huge, ambitious study of co-dependency: mother and daughter, man and machine, east and west, Britain and empire.
I've sometimes found Hickson's plays a bit morally iffy, with ambition rewarded and weakness punished. But here she makes it all deliciously problematic. May is intensely ambitious, but it’s not simple lust for power: it’s an awareness she can play the game better than the men (and in doing so she acts as callously as the men). It’s also a loving ambition for her daughter's wellbeing that drives her to sometimes hilarious, sometimes monstrous heights. Kettle is a fine foil – she gives excellent brat – and by the end there's more than a touch of 'Grey Gardens' to the two.
That final scene is perhaps the one moment Hickson’s odyssey founders slightly, insofar as she manages to find a symbolically appropriate end that lacks emotional clout. Still, the odd gap is papered over by Cracknell’s typically stylish production, which takes place in 50 shades of beautifully nuanced gloom (lighting by Lucy Carter), soundtracked by sound designer Peter Rice’s banging techno and haunting drones. Plus! Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’ as you’ve never heard it before.