Historically, epic tales that span many years and places are told from a male perspective. Yes, there examples to the contrary, but even with stories like Moll Flanders and Anna Karenina, they are examples of a woman not following the path of women in 'polite society'. Tracing the use of oil (as a global means of power from the late 19th - mid-21st century) Carrie Cracknell has artfully brought to life Ella Hickson's pioneering play, which tethers the rise and decline of this fossil fuel with civilisation – and more importantly, a mother's relationship with her daughter.
Everpresent during the 160-year span of the play, May (Anne Marie Duff) and Amy (Yolanda Kettle) appear in various incarnations. At first they're witnesses to Britain's first attempts at securing a regular supply of oil from the Arabian peninsular, but as times goes by their lives are more directly involved, on either either side of the coin. The one constant is May has had to make some hard choices to guarantee that mother and daughter are free to pursue their destiny independent of men.
The fact that 'Amy' is an anagram of 'May' suggests that she is her possible future given the right circumstances, though in every time period, mother and daughter have differences of opinion regarding their respective choices. In some ways Oil complements the last production at the Almeida (They Drink It In The Congo) with with its omniscient view of history, geopolitcal tensions, but everything distilled through the eyes of two women. The scenes that tackle the early days of British foreign policy to make for fascinating viewing, but what really stands in that segment is May's resolve to be free and not be beholden to anyone – even if it means others may be inadvertently hurt along the way.
The Almeida is on a roll with its entertaining, but prescient productions which never fail to challenge the audience's preconceptions of history and the feminine point of view. But while this play offers some great insights into a mother-daughter relationship, and sheds some light on the early days of Britain making inroads for procuring petroleum, what sticks in one's mind long after the curtain call is why there aren't more stories of this breadth and ambition.
© Michael Davis 2016
Oil runs at the Almeida Theatre, London until 26 November 2016.