Theatre review: Oil

Written by Sebastian Whale on 21 October 2016 in Culture

Ella Hickson’s new play sees the emergence of feminism resisting the patriarchy of man, the fragilities of capitalism and western imperialism.

We begin Ella Hickson’s new play, Oil, in 1880s Cornwall. An admittedly unusual location to act as a springboard for a five act production looking at the geopolitics of one of the world’s most prized commodities. But a pivotal one, as the allure of a then-emerging good takes us through a 160-year journey of how mankind can turn something so scarce, multifaceted and freeing, into a component of war, inequality and ultimately, diminished.

We travel from a farm in south west England with a pregnant May looking to find a better life for her unborn child, galvanised by the opportunities oil presents and the freedoms it could allow for her daughter. In doing so she leaves behind her beloved husband Joss, who did not share the same exuberance for this new resource. May’s love for her partner was boundless and raw, but the need to make the best future for her daughter topped even that. We end in 2051 with May and Amy both aged and huddled together, the commodity that set them free now depleted.

In the play, which apparently took Hickson six years to write, we see the emergence of feminism resisting the patriarchy of society, the fragilities of capitalism, western imperialism and its thirst for resources, and a shift in power balance between regions. Central to Oil is the fascinating portrayal of the relationship between mother and daughter, which despite spanning three centuries, the tensions and components remain constant, as does the absence of men in determining their future.

The female leads are placed into different key periods of oil, from Tehran in 1908 through to post-invasion Iraq in 2021. In each, the balancing of freedom with compromise is always on show, a mother seeking what she perceives to be the best for her child, always retaining hope the future will be better than the reality of today. No more is this present than in the best scene of the 2 hour 30 minute production, set in 1970s Hampstead. May returns home to find her 15-year-old daughter on the kitchen table with a boy one year her elder. Now an oil executive, in the course of one evening May seeks to simultaneously deny both the new Libyan regime of Gaddafi taking a stake in her business and her daughter from dating an apparently inadequate partner. She wrestles to hang on to what she ultimately knows she cannot, her daughter’s personal development and another country’s resource – both awakened to their own potential and staking a claim for what is perhaps rightfully theirs.

Hickson deploys humour with historical resonance to make each scene particularly profound. The final scene, set in the mid-21st Century, mirrors that of the first; a family struggling to make ends meet, as man has all but used up a coveted resource. As the appeal of oil drew in May back in 1888, we have the emergence of a new commodity, albeit with the human race apparently en route to making the same mistakes once more.

Anne-Marie Duff’s portrayal of the embattled May, from a pregnant wife in 1880s Britain through to a concerned mother of a mid-20s daughter trying to impart the importance of bargain, is exquisite. Her relationship with Amy (brilliantly played by Yolanda Kettle) makes this thought-provoking production much more than a take on the geopolitics of scarce commodities.

Oil is an exploration of the often tumultuous mother-daughter relationship, compromise versus principles, imperialism and uprisings. Director Carrie Cracknell’s stylish production fully utilises the Almeida’s unique setting, deftly using the real with the abstract. There is also a stimulating soundtrack and solid performances from the supporting cast. Though each scene is perhaps not equal in quality, Hickson’s Oil is a refined production well worthy of its billing.


Oil is playing at the Almeida theatre until 26 November. For more information and tickets, go to 

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