Review | Black Swan State Theatre Company delivers the thought-provoking ‘Oil’

Oil | State Theatre Centre | Until 27 November | ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ 

Ella Hickson’s acclaimed play Oil was first performed in 2016 at the Almeida Theatre in London, a venue well known for staging great news works. It’s a play which on the surface is about finite resources and the way they’ve changed our lives, but it’s a complex, mind-bending story tackles so much more.

As our local festivals, arts companies and sporting groups tackle the debate around accepting sponsorship from resources companies, you might think Black Swan State Theatre Company had programmed this play in response to that criticism. The company has just re-signed Fortescue Metals Group as their major sponsor, but undoubtedly the reason this work is on the roster is because it’s an astoundingly good piece of storytelling.

The story begins in 1886 in Cornwall as a closeknit family work on their farm, tackling the cold, struggling to find enough food to go round in the bleak winter. As May complains about the conditions one of the family retorts, “Why would you expect to be warm when the sun isn’t shining?”

There are changes coming to this family’s lives though. May and her husband Joss reveal that they are expecting a child, the first of the next generation of their brood, and new technology arrives, as a visitor shares with them the wonder of a kerosene lamp. Oil has arrived in their lives.

The story continues with a journey that takes us across the world, and through the decades. We leap forward to Iran in the 1908 and then to London in 1970. Each segment of the tale shows us another stage in the relationship between May and her daughter Amy.

As we time-travel, we’re left wondering is this the same woman and her daughter, or different people with the same name? It’s why the play has been compared to Virgina Woolf’s novel Orlando. You can draw your own conclusions, but it makes for an intriguing storytelling device that lifts the work into a higher level of contemplation.

Over five scenes we watch the relationship between May and Amy change. As they get older their bond is tested, their relationship faces challenges, but mostly their obstacles come from within.

The play also takes us on a journey of changing attitudes, we watch these two women move from being subservient to powerful, mirroring the changes that women’s lives have had over the decades. Looking to the future, Oil ponders what happens to our lives when the resource dries up – what do we return to? Correspondingly are our hard-fought freedoms also hanging precariously, and what about love – does it ever run out?

Clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, with an interval, Oil is a longer play, but it holds the audience’s attention. Despite having earnest themes and dramatic storylines, it’s also filled with many hilarious moments, and packed full of great lines.

Hayley McElhinney is superb as May, while recent WAAPA graduate Abbey Morgan delivers an impressive performance as daughter Amy. Will Bastow is perfect as slacker boyfriend Nate during the 1970s segment, and the significant cast also includes Michael Abercromby, Violette Ayad, Grace Chow, St John Cowcher, Polly Low and Tinashe Mangwana and Will O’Mahony.

Impressively there are sections of the play performed in several languages (don’t worry there are surtitles) and the actor’s deliver their lines perfectly – it’s very impressive.

The set design from the legendary Zoe Atkinson is impressive, through sliding partitions, protections and clever lighting from Matthew Marshall the play has a cinematic feel – it’s telling a big story well. Under the guidance of director Adam Mitchell, the story is told in a tight and efficient manner and never the connection with the audience never lulls despite its significant length.

Oil is the final work programmed by departing Artistic Director Claire Watson, who has led the company since 2017. Next year the company continues its journey under the guidance of Kate Champion.

Tickets to Oil are on sale now and the season runs until 24th November. 

Graeme Watson, images: Daniel J Grant. 

Declaration: Graeme Watson is an employee of Edith Cowan University, which includes the WA Academy of Performing Arts. 

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