Oil, Almeida, review: ‘Duff is an eternal fuel source, powering the vivid, unsettling play’

Yolanda Kettle and Anne-Marie Duff in Oil at the Almeida. Picture: Richard H Smith

Yolanda Kettle and Anne-Marie Duff in Oil at the Almeida. Picture: Richard H Smith - Credit: Archant

Ella Hickson’s long-gestating play tackles the question of dwindling oil resources in a sprawling, magic-realist epic, stretching from 19th century Cornwall to a dystopian future

How has oil, that precious but dwindling resource, changed our way of life and what might come next?

Ella Hickson’s long-gestating play tackles those big questions in a sprawling, magic-realist epic, stretching from 19th century Cornwall to a dystopian future.

If occasionally unwieldy, it’s still a rich work, and an all-too-rare female odyssey.

The play is anchored by Anne-Marie Duff’s fiercely uncompromising May. We first meet her as a pregnant housewife, desperate to escape candlelit toil and oppressive in-laws.


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A visiting American offers a revolutionary source of light, warmth and independence: kerosene.

May – never ageing – then pops up as a serving girl in 1908 Iran, where the British are trying to control resources; a Hampstead-based CEO in the Seventies, learning that Gaddafi’s Libya is seizing her oil company; in Baghdad in 2021, arguing Western policy; and in 2051, where, coming full circle, another stranger appears with a new energy source, this time harvested from the moon.

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Hickson deconstructs everything from feminism – May is increasingly liberated, but isolated – to imperial land grabs, capitalism and technology distancing us from primal experiences.

May’s co-dependent relationship with anagrammatically named daughter Amy parallels colonial attitudes, and we’re asked to examine whether we mask greed and ambition behind the excuse of making a better world for our children.

It occasionally strays into lecture, but Duff is an eternal fuel source, powering the play with her magnificently complex May: carnal, caustic, loving and steely.

Yolanda Kettle is excellent as her wilful, narcissistic child, and there’s good support from Ellie Haddington’s curmudgeonly matriarch, Patrick Kennedy’s smooth-talking cad, Lara Sawalha’s challenging local, and Nabil Elouahabi’s shrew emissary. Carrie Cracknell’s stylish production is constantly absorbing, with Vicki Mortimer providing everything from a painterly tableau to a feast of Formica.

Vivid and unsettling.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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