It’s perhaps not the boldest of proclamations to announce that one has found the new play of the year in mid-October. After all, it’s not that many weeks until the Christmas madness of panto patrol kicks off, but for me Oil is the undisputed outstanding find of 2016 – and then some. It’s a shimmering achievement of both intellectual and, crucially, emotional brilliance from writer Ella Hickson, on a level of achievement with the two most exciting and audacious pieces of new writing in recent years, Lucy Prebble’s Enron and Chimerica from Lucy Kirkwood. It can be no coincidence that both of these pieces also played at the Almeida, without a doubt London’s most nimble and risk-taking theatre. The future of bold, big-sweep British playwriting is, it seems, gloriously, finally, female.
Hickson’s drama unfolds over five beautifully crafted sections, which span more or less the entirety of the Age of Oil, from 1889 to 2051. We start in Cornwall in the gloaming of winter, as a farming family labours to make a hardscrabble living. Farmer’s wife May (Anne-Marie Duff) is questing, passionate, pregnant – and very cold. A rare visitor to this back-of-beyond location arrives, an American, eager to display the new innovation of a kerosene lamp. May is mesmerised, warmed from within both literally and metaphorically. She senses the future, possibility, heat, light, life. She moves towards it. She puts on her coat and leaves.
And so it continues with the years sliding beguilingly by in a not strictly-to-be-counted fashion, May following the lure of oil and moving boldly onwards down the decades as an increasingly high-achieving single mother to Amy (Yolanda Kettle), a fiercely intelligent and headstrong young woman all too aware of the environmental and societal drawbacks of the world’s oil over-reliance. May and Amy rage and blaze and argue all the way into the future, but just as the three letters of their names are inexorably interlinked, the flame of their bond is never extinguished. I defy anyone not to be floored by the final lines of the play, spoken by Amy, which remind us that a mother’s love is something that predates and will outlive any passing human fancy for fossil fuels.
Oil is impeccably directed by Carrie Cracknell – and it still gives me a thrill, even in London, even in 2016, to note that the two leading actors, as well as the writer, director and designer (Vicki Mortimer) of the year’s best play are all female – and just as well acted by Duff and Kettle. The latter has long been a performer of great promise, and here at last she steps up and takes her rightful place as one of the most compelling actors working today. Duff is as good as ever, too, fierce and steely and unstoppable, but burning with a parent’s unquenchable desire that her child should have it better than she herself could ever have imagined. If loneliness is a by-product of such insatiable drive onwards, well, surely that is a price worth paying?
If there is any justice at all, Oil will blaze a thrilling trail from the Almeida to the West End and, thence, set the world alight. This play is precisely, exactly, what the theatre is for.