We live in the hope that the future will be better than the reality we have today. That there will be better opportunities, more advanced technologies, more freedom, more choice. But what happens when that future arrives and we realise it’s just as bad, because of us, because of who we are and what we do? “My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel,” a Saudi saying goes. And true, we will never be satisfied. And one day, it will collapse, and we have to rebuild. When we discovered oil it spoke with so many promises of a more efficient future, with better quality of life. Fast forward a hundred years and it’s the cause of global warming, wars and capitalism. Oil at the Almeida opens a window into the history of oil and its influence on people as we time-travel through the ages of capitalism to the future, a gloomy prediction of the fall yet to come.
Through magic realism and blurring of time, we follow a mother and daughter over 150 years and how their lives are affected by the discovery and exploitation of oil. We meet May (Anne-Marie Duff) on a cold, desolate farm in Cornwall, pregnant and oppressed in an over-crowded household run by her mother-in-law (Ellie Haddington), tyrannised by her brother-in-law (Patrick Kennedy). One day oil arrives on their doorstep, and as the Singer family rejects the future prospects of this new energy source, May finds herself forced to leave beloved husband Joss (Tom Mothersdale) to make a new life for herself. Embracing the new choices oil brings to society, she goes on a journey through time and place in order to make the best opportunities available to her daughter, Amy (Yolanda Kettle). From the 1880s Cornwall to Tehran, 1970s London and a future run by the Chinese, we experience the difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship up close, the essence of such a relationship despite time and place, as well as the clash between capitalism and the new generation.
Anne-Marie Duff threads the time-travelling beautifully and delivers a power-house performance, versatile and intensively human with all her flaws and troubles. She depicts the struggles of a mother and woman as well as someone who’s had to fight her way through with such humanity it’s hard not to feel like you’re under her skin. Yolanda Kettle shines as Amy, showing great skill not only in character development but also huge vulnerability – she’s clearly someone to look out for. Tom Mothersdale is charismatic as usual as Joss, and as he reappears in May’s conscience through time we see the struggle he’s had to go through losing out on a family because of traditional values. It’s the unity against the individual, and as some might argue that the individual’s quest to freedom and success is human progress, the loss this couple feels questions whether it’s actually worth it.
Ella Hickson’s play is thick and heavy, as well as highly intelligent and bursting with predictions of the path we are leading each other down. She marries family relationships with a massive political idea which is applaudable and definitely makes the play more accessible. Carrie Cracknell again shows herself the master of domestic relationships and her text work is sharp. The focus on magic realism lifts the play and displays beautiful imagery at times with Vicki Mortimer’s set – and though Luke Halls’ video design is phenomenal, you can’t help but feel all of these devises try to disguise the fact that some parts of the play don’t quite come together. At one level the time-travelling does make sense – but I’m not sure we really buy into it. A few choices don’t really serve the play, and with such an ambitious idea, less would be more. That said, hats off for the courage, and for the majority of the night the acting is sublime, supported by some impressive design choices.
Oil is playing the Almeida until 26 November. For more information and tickets, see www.almeida.co.uk
Photo: Richard H Smith