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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

Directed by Carrie Cracknell Ella Hickson’s Oil premieres at the Almeida Theatre, designed by Vicki Mortimer and notably lit by Lucy Carter. It stars Anne-Marie Duff and Yolanda Kettle.


Ella Hickson’s Oil premieres at the Almeida Theatre directed by Carrie Cracknell and designed by Vicki Mortimer with Lucy Carter’s wondrous lighting taking equal billing; it stars Anne-Marie Duff and Yolanda Kettle.


1889: a tenebrous box stage does for a Cornish farmhouse and wintry living with dull pulses of light like Joseph Wright’s Experiment With an Air Pump which becomes appropriate. May, palpably in love with husband and the family’s eldest son Josh feels even further out of place when they’re visited by an American offering £800 for their land to store oil on. He demonstrates oil lamps, the future’s bright fuel. The whole brightening trope crackles through the play from here on. On Josh’s veto May makes a heartrending decision and we’re launched into her odyssey, soon accompanied by the child she’s carrying.


This is a fabulous tale in the strict sense and worth probing, rich in narrative inflections that must be seen. May ages only slightly and by 1908 she’s in Persia serving grand tables and pursued by two different men, one Officer Samuel the British exploiter of oil which the empire desperately needs. Patrick Kennedy impressively purrs and snarls his Samuel roles throughout. Despite the offers of co-worker Thomas who dislikes Samuel’s imperial screwing (as well as trying that with May) May, now with child Amy snatches money and flees in a car. Like the 1889 scenario, she’s bitten by the very exploitation she’s fleeing: Duff’s portrayal, tightrope-walking tenderness over an abyss of fear and atavistic decisions, forms the long burning-down wick of the play.


Yolanda Kettle’s Amy should be eighteen but this slow trek though 150 years cleverly calibrates incremental shifts between mother and daughter as mini period dramas, so that by 1970 when May’s a slightly improbable oil mogul for a BP-like concern in Libya it’s clear the dynamic between her and Amy (now sexually active at fifteen) becomes the paradigm for capitalist control in the guise of aid to those nations more ‘child-like’.


Kettle’s increasing maturity over a hundred years shifts this relationship gently into reverse, and Kettle’s playing off Duff gleams with troubled warmth. And there are delicious moments. In 1970, catching a hapless hippy wannabe performing cunnilingus on Amy on the kitchen table May asks if he’s eaten already – and critiques his performance before dispatching him. May’s deputy, Thomas, now Tom wrought from decent Manse promptings by Brian Ferguson shows himself a true sick-hearted slave increasingly alienated by May’s helix spiral of imperialism.


By 2021 it’s Amy who’s an out-of-tune liberal and May – who rescues her from Kirkuk – an ex MP who believes we need to deal with IS-owned oil-wells. The denouement, 2051, has us back at the wintry farm, two older women huddling for warmth and a Chinese saleswoman with spectacles that instantly translate words (we’re witness to much Arabic and some Chinese) offering a cold nuclear fusion box. The west really has declined, and Helium 3 is mined out of the moon by the Chinese. That’s something indeed projected by them even now. This kind of scenario has been similarly plotted by David Mitchell in his 2014 novel The Bone Clocks but similarities merely point to its likelihood.


Some of the cast appear just once, others reappear. The subtlest, saddest is May’s lost love Josh. Tom Mothersdale appears strongly in the first scene (literally, chopping wood) that smacks of a Cornish D H Lawrence and in this tableau (with Ellie Haddington’s grave, powerful Ma Singer and others) we’re absorbed in a bleak virtually blacked-out period drama thewed with frigidity, frustration and sudden sexual warmth that sparks its own jealousies. This fuller ensemble piece is in some ways Hickson’s finest writing. There are things iterated you expect to drive conclusions, but they’re left. A chicken motif survives but Josh’s memory swerves in and out.


Josh spectrally reappears in 1970, not long after Amy reports a suicide burning with petrol – May’s reaction confronting Josh is a moving, striking coup – till he returns in yet another time. Duff never relinquishes a brittle steeliness but modulates its manifesting with sudden intense shows of love for her daughter. Again, this too is shafted with compromise, bad and good faith, displaced lost love.


Hickson’s good at repeat patterns. Amy’s words often mirror May’s earlier when she recounts her escape from an adored lover and experiences freedom in a hotel. We’re soon subjected to another version as war-torn Amy experiences it again, exploitatively, in Iraq. Trying to locate oblique symbolism in the waft-over of Handel’s seduction aria from Alcina – exploitative but love-struck sorceress – might tease, but by now mother and daughter have lived pretty mythically themselves.


Perhaps the voice-over introductions might have been avoided, and the flickering chronology-flipping projections at certain points didn’t add to the production, though some use is welcome: it punches through an amplitude of vision that Hickson clearly wants to oxygenate her text with. Cracknell paces this with the right amount of pause in a headlong pacing through history.


It’s necessary theatre, and even if one wanted somehow some greater fusion of the love lost and wrenched, Hickson’s decision to focus on the mother-daughter axis underscores a neat parable of what we say we love, and how it might really love us back. Perhaps even more than this sunken history lesson, even more than Hickson intends, that’s what the play is bidding to be remembered for, which Duff – radiant with sad self-knowledge – delivers with something near incandescence.