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Review: Oil, Almeida Theatre

ImageElla Hickson's play Oil is broad in scope, starting in the 1800s and finishing in 2051 and that, in part, is its problem.

It opens in the 1880s with a poor, isolated, farming family on a bitterly cold, dark, winter's night (think Mr Burns dark). A man arrives and makes an offer that could change their lives and, as a result of that meeting May (Anne Marie-Duff), a pregnant wife, disappears into the night.

May becomes a recurring character as does her daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle) who makes her first appearance in the next segment which is set in early 20th century Iran. May is trying to earn enough for them to get a boat ticket home. She is waitressing at a dinner reception where the English are oiling up some Iranians in order to secure a deal. She is made two different offers by two different men.

Next we see May as a senior exec of an oil company in the 1970s. She is dealing with a rebellious teen on one hand and a rebellion in Iran which is threatening business and trade.

The action then jumps to the future. First it is 2021 and Amy is working in a war torn Iraq and her mother wants her to come home, then in 2051 where she is living with her elderly mother and fuel is scarce and expensive. There they are offered a new power source and a means of changing their lives for the better, the play coming full circle.

Aside from the characters of May and Amy there are other common refrains weaving through the narrative: a particular line of dialogue, a particular action or circumstance. It is subtle and there is definitely a clever structure there but the problem is the scope of themes. Hickson touches on feminism, misogyny, power - fuel and political, trade, war, capitalism, xenophobia and parenting, among other things, and as a result it feels like Oil isn't about anything in particular.

When I'm thinking about the play I keep coming back to the 1970s segment. Here Amy is a typical teen determined to do whatever she can to annoy her mother; she flaunts her sexuality and boyfriend, smokes in front of her mother and blames her for everything. The exchanges between mother and daughter (and mother and boyfriend) are sharp and often funny and I really wanted more of it.

Oil would make an interesting piece about any of the subjects it covers but all together its a bit of a mish-mash and the various threads aren't enough to properly pull it together. It's always a delight to watch Anne-Marie Duff and Yolanda Kettle does a great job of bridging the ages but I'd like to have seen them in something a little more focused and less 'epic'.

It's two hours and 40 minutes long with an interval and I'm giving it three stars. It's at the Almeida until 26 November.