on now, Review

REVIEW | Oil by Ella Hickson | Love is an infinite resource

Review | Laura Money

Topical and richly layered, Oil by Ella Hickson is the final sweeping epic in Black Swan State Theatre Company‘s 2022 season, and it is a beacon of light in the Perth theatre scene. Ella Hickson writes boldly and with heart – Oil runs through as a theme at times subtly, and at others at the forefront of the piece. Hickson’s style is ambitious – she paints with big strokes and bright colours to create strong, sharp scenes. Hurtling through time from a family in Cornwall seeing an oil lamp for the first time through conflict and energy crises to the inevitable arrival of new technologies, Oil sees the many manifestations of May (Hayley Mcelhinney) exploring themes of love and loss, sustainability and identity. Expertly directed by Adam Mitchell and Scott McArdle (assistant director), who take the scope of the play and mould it around a stunningly impressive set, Oil by Ella Hickson is a pertinent show with relevant themes and a gutsy message of hope.

Zoe Atkinson‘s sets are always impressive but this time the bar has been raised. An impressive array of eras and places are deftly brought to life with her attention to detail. Beginning with a run down farmer’s cottage complete with woodblock and coming full circle with the modernisation of the same set – its starkness mirroring the characters’ despair. There is the richness of a turn of the century exotic homestead in Tehran full of opulent tessellating designs and Imperialism, and a simply stunning 70s British kitchen with appliances that light up. Each section is an insight into the people and their story must be told instantly – Atkinson provides every detail to give an instant precis of the characters and their situations. Hickson uses May as an anchor character – from new pregnancy in rural Cornwall to single mother in Persia and beyond, May and Amy appear as threads throughout the work – vestiges of the past that echo through time. Atkinson uses red to symbolise the essence of May – her scarlet dress evolving from Victorian modesty to 70s wraparound to 2000s girlboss suit. It’s a clever way to indicate that these characters have the same spirit whilst placing them firmly in the time and place that their segment requires.

There’s so much packed into this play – much like oil itself, a little bit can go a long way. Mcelhinney’s May is punchy and spirited throughout, yet there seems to be an insatiable desire that on occasion comes out. Her husband Joss (Michael Abercromby) poetically describes her as a woman walking, walking, and walking. He delivers a poem at every transition that encompasses the restlessness of May – Irish lilt perfect for the narrative. May’s story is our story. Every iteration of her sees her fascinated by the Pandora’s box that is oil and technology. Mcelhinney gives Cornwall May a husky tone that exposes her raw ambition – her desire to be more to want more than just living hand to mouth. A little charmed at first by American travelling salesman William Whitcomb – played with all the charm and sleaze required by Will Bastow, May comes across as a bit selfish and stuck up – she doesn’t embody the hard working lifestyle of her extended family. This changes when her pregnancy is revealed – why shouldn’t May want a better life for her baby? Subsequent iterations of May see her grow and thrive as a confident, strong woman – quite stubborn, yet always thinking of her daughter. Mcelhinney has brilliant comic timing – there are absolutely riotous scenes where she doesn’t batter an eyelid – delivering quips in a deadpan tone that proves her acting prowess. The final scene is an absurdist postmodern stripping back of theatre. Mcelhinney shouts like a character straight out of Samuel Beckett and gives cantankerous yet vague commentary from deep within her red parka.

On one level Oil is about oil, its initial, revolutionary properties, the political battles fought to control its sources, the physical skirmishes, and the misuse of it. The destruction oil has caused and the grand social impact it has had on every single life. But these commentaries are undercurrents in a family story that explores feminism and ways to be women. From Violette Ayad‘s portrayal of women of colour to Abbey Morgan growing and finally finding her autonomy as a single woman as Amy, the plight of women is explored from all angles. Ayad in Tehran is distrusted by the English, and jealously mistreated as she is seen as favoured by the young Amy. A later vignette sees the pair reunited as friends, however while Amy is merely playing at conflict, Aminah passionately explains that she doesn’t have a choice. The 70s sees the rift between May and Amy crack and divide – unable to be fully reconciled down the generations. Amy, a hippy riles up her mother, this time a big executive in a oil company. Their back and forth appears light at first, but Hickson is the master of the double meaning. Discussing ice-cream and boyfriends gets just as heated as large corporations and war. Mcelhinney gives a death stare like no other – May tells it straight and gives some damn good advice to boot. Morgan’s Amy physically distorts herself to get out her frustrations, lashing out violently but in the end, May doesn’t hold back and tells Amy that she has so much potential – don’t waste it on anyone else.

Oil by Ella Hickson is a brilliant work that takes something that should be at the forefront of our collective minds and keeps it steadily there – pulsing throughout every section. It’s scope is epic – Imperialist Iran, power crises UK, war-torn Syria and beyond with more than just these historical eras explored but their derivative genres as well. Hickson is a genius – each era references theatre styles that relate to it, something Mitchell’s direction embraces fully. From Chekhov-style struggles to Bernard-Shaw Imperialism, even kitchen sink dramas of the 70s and an Ender’s Game reference that brings it all back full circle, Oil by Ella Hickson is a show for theatre-lovers. It’s also completely its own thing, creating an entirely new way of presenting theatre whilst standing high on the platform of its predecessors – and if that’s not a metaphor for oil itself, then I don’t know what is.

Oil by Ella Hickson is on at The State Theatre Centre of WA until 27th November 2022. TICKETS

The Fourth Wall acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land we engage in storytelling on – the Wadjhuk people of the Noongar nation. We pay respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.

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