Ella Hickson’s new play, Oil, which has been six years in the writing, is undeniably ambitious, time-travelling in five separate parts from 1889 to 2051 from Cornwall and Hampstead to Tehran and Baghdad. It has a broad, epic sweep, that is matched by a fluent production from director Carrie Cracknell and designer Vicki Mortimer. Each scene is given an impressive specificity, as the play traces our first awareness of the power of oil, the struggles for territorial control of the places where it is found and our dependence on it, to the oil-less future after it has run out.
In the published playtext, a Saudi saying is quoted: “My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel.” That beautifully encapsulates the story of our age, which Hickson now puts flesh and blood on – along with a heavy dose of magic realism – as her play follows a woman May and her daughter Amy over 160 years of their lives together in the Oil Age.
It’s dense stuff – and Hickson ups the dramatic ante by making it also about the tangled relationships of mothers and daughters. The wondrous Anne-Marie Duff and Yolanda Kettle bring that forever-brittle relationship to tangible life, but the play often feels like it is slipping out of the author’s grasp – she tries to cram in too much.
Like Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns, performed at the Almeida in 2014 and also envisioning the future, Oil plays with form and structure in a bold way, but I was similarly non-plussed by the result. It’s a play that is likely to divide audiences, and while I admired it, I couldn’t enjoy it.