Sunday, 16 October 2016

Review Oil

by Ella Hickson

Cold Comfort Farm

In the week  President Buhari of Nigeria (a petroleum nation) said his wife belonged "to my kitchen", we filled our tank and drove to see Ella Hickson's take on the oil industry. Indeed Oil marries the growth of our dependence on this fossil fuel with the emancipation of women.

At its centre is May (Anne-Marie Duff) . We follow her progress over more than a century, seeking not so much a room, but an energy resource, of her own. 

Maybe it is a magical mystery tour of a female Flying Dutchman fuelled by oil before it becomes a dwindling resource. Maybe it is more a psychological tour of a woman's mind and life with designer Vicki Mortimer, lighting by Lucy Carter and sound by Peter Rice at times subtly indicating electrical synapses of the brain.

We first encounter May in 1889 as the pregnant wife who has married into a Devon farming family labouring on the land from sunrise to sunset, constantly needing to chop wood for fuel with candlelight a nighttime luxury.

This freezing and spartan existence is interrupted by the arrival of a stetson-wearing American (Sam Swann). He demonstrates to them  the smelly convenience of kerosene lamps and introduces the concept of land acquisition, stubbornly refused by the family despite May's attraction to this brave new world of money, commerce and light.  It is at this point pregnant May seems to start on a journey leaping through electrical synapses of time

The play (or more accurately five shorter linked plays with the recurring characters of May and also her daughter Amy played by Yolanda Kettle), is sandwiched between two songs  an English folk song, There Were Three Ravens, and ends with Justin Bieber's Love Yourself.

There are five time shifts flagged up, three in the past: The 1880s, Britain's imperial sphere of influence in the Persian oil fields in 1908  and the formica kitchen of a (female) oil executive's Hampstead home in the 1970s, then forward to 2021 in the Iraqi desert with a British woman MP determined to bring her daughter home by hook or by crook.

Thirty years after that, it's finally back to the future at the Singer farm where oil is rationed - mother and daughter left to fend for themselves in one room barely able to afford commercially rationed oil and the cycle starting again with a new world power and salesperson with a proposed solution to all our energy problems. 

We'll make no bones about it. This is a strange one, perhaps with something in common with the Royal Court's space fantasy X. And with references, lots of references, relevant but barely integrated, the scenes sometimes feeling sketch-like.

The farming family is called Singer, maybe a gesture towards the mechanisation of women's manual labour into commerce, on machines which still needed drops of oil.  A British officer in Iran has the surname Samuel, the same as one ofthe founders of the Shell oil company.

There is also a reference to menstruation as May hired as waitress gets "blood on the napkins". And so it goes, often managing to stitch in references a few snippets of history but without knowing that history, the effect is random, in fact frustrating, for an audience member.

Even the publicity photo shows Anne-Marie Duff looking for all the world like Bernard Shaw's Eliza Doolittle seated in a modern - er - kitchen. Presumably with all the electrical goods and the materials used to build the kitchen products, in one way or other, of oil.

It is this mash up which makes this feel like a rather clumsy attempt to tie together and mirror many magpie elements in a confused woman's mind. It seems strange for example, that in 1908 a Persian waiting woman would be paid monthly, even when paid in cash, as if she were on a modern salary paid in retrospect into a bank account.

Or that a 15-year old schoolgirl in 1970 when Libya effectively started to nationalize its oil fields talks about leaving school at 16. The school leaving age was only raised from 15 to 16 in 1972. In the last section the Singer farm of the future, when oil is scarce, is suddenly not in Devon but in Cornwall.

Maybe there is also an attempt to chart a history of literature - for example, Virginia Woolf time-travelling,  a countryside idyll imagined by Amy's 1970s' boyfriend Nate sounds like something out of Arnold Wesker's 1959 play "I'm Talking About Jerusalem"

There are a lot of "maybes" because while there are the occasional witty elements, there appears to be no heart to Oil and, although there are constant references to and attempts to foreground oil, it does not seem the main concern of the writer Ella Hickson (or dramaturge Jenny Worton).

The cast give their all and there's fluent direction by Carrie Cracknell, using video projections (Luke Halls) as well as lighting and sound to link the plays. However if confusion is one of the themes, it unfortunately is reflected in the structure of the piece.

The disparate themes feel shoehorned in rather than an artistic choice growing naturally out of the content. It did made us wonder whether it was originally conceived for the screen rather than on stage.

These are certainly women who do not stay chained to the kitchen sink, but despite a strong cast and direction, our own wells do not gush over for Oil and we give it an amber light. And TLT and her own little gas guzzler may well take up the popcorn and watch again the, albeit male-dominated, movie and Oscar-winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood based on Upton Sinclair's Oil!

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