In an ideal world, we all want to do something in the face of injustice. We all want to tackle social inequity, feed the homeless and save the polar ice caps. And yet, we can’t quite channel that drive in an active way. Not the case for Elsbeth, the principal character in Southern Wild debut’s production of The Oil and The Shard, staged at the Camden’s People’s Theatre. Fresh out of university with a fervour for all things just, she joins a fellow band of female activists set on achieving an unprecedented display of protest and activism. Based on true events in 2013, there’s lots of fun to be had and all-round great performances in this amusing, heartfelt and occasionally odd play.
From the off, Elsbeth is shown to be of good intentions. Though a little inexperienced and lacking in revolutionary credentials, the motivation for change is only too present. Played by Emily Greensdale, we open with her engaging in a protest, occupying a plot with fellow dissenters. It is here that she meets Jessica, Kate and Susan, played by Lucy Farret, Zuleika Gregory and Jesse Meadows respectively. They invite her into their all-female activist group, two weeks before they intend to scale the capitalistic fortress of The Shard in protest against oil extraction in the Arctic, an act which plunges them into the limelight. So begins a media torrent of inquisition, the group being unapologetically forced to justify their opinions in light of their heroic act – pressure which the group can only withstand for so long.
The Oil and The Shard gives a parade of great performances from its minimal cast. Emily Greensdale gives a rousing turn as the gutsy though conflicted Elsbeth, whose ideological twists and turns throughout the show seem personally committed to by Greenslade. Lucy Farrett as Jessica gives a remarkable performance, bringing a palpable air of pathos to the story with her character’s hopes and eventual failure to have a baby. Jesse Meadows as Susan, the group’s driving force, gives a highly considered and strong performance, showing particular strength in the press conference scenes as she answers and deflects the presumably spurious questions the journalists launch at her.
The play has a predominantly comedic feel, though occasionally toys with curiously surrealistic elements, to mixed effect. A repeated motif of a rabbit made from an old milk bottle, which darts around a wasteland of modern detritus, juts somewhat awkwardly into the play’s prevailing tone. Whilst the metaphor is sound, these scenes seem bizarre, given the otherwise frivolously entertaining style that the play adopts. They do, however, emphasise the play’s profoundly effective use of sound and music administered by Jack Drewry, whose repertoire of sound effects and accompanying soundtrack guides the play’s tonal trajectory to great success.
The Oil and The Shard is a brief injection of theatrical fun, but also has something crucial to say. Not only does it wave the all-important flag of environmentalism, it also showcases the fickle nature of our ideological opinions and the fact that, when examined (especially under the probing and unforgiving light of the modern media) they can become malleable and difficult to grasp.
The Oil and The Shard played at the Camden People’s Theatre until 27 September. For more information, see the Camden People’s Theatre website. Photo: Southern Wild.