Theatre review: Ella Hickson’s Oil is bold and thought-provoking, though hindered by an overly ambitious scope

Oil has had a painfully obvious effect on our world, but we don’t often look back and wonder at how we got here. That’s what Oil, the production by British playwright Ella Hickson – brought to life once more by the Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA –  does in a surreal and ambitious way. The play follows the ‘age of oil’, from its inception in the late 1800s to its imagined futuristic ending, exploring this history through the life of May (Hayley McElhinney), a woman whose life spans over 160 years. 

A stand-out component of this production was the script, an already heralded creation from Hickson, but worth mentioning all the same. It’s clever and complex, with countless quotable sentences which seem so poignant that you almost question their origin – surely someone wrote that line long ago? The dialogue stands out against subtle sets and convoluted timelines, with breathtaking lines like “when we decided we had the right to be warm when the sun isn’t shining” creating beautifully emotive moments on the stage. 

The first scene in particular felt deeply real, and explored the central idea perfectly. It opened on a freezing night in 1886, where the set of bleak darkness, flickering candles, and howling wind was so well done you could almost feel it yourself. With the raw, heart-wrenching scenes of the joyless life of the time, it gave you a visceral understanding of why we so desperately pursued what oil could do for us. Everything, including the acting, set, and costumes were flawlessly executed.

Oil is a bold production, with a massive scope, which makes it impactful and thought-provoking. However, like most art that attempts to tackle the big questions and concepts of our day, it falls short in some aspects. The play doesn’t just try to cover ‘the age of oil’ and all that encompasses, but also consumerism, the progression of humankind, our love for innovation, and the impact of imperialism. Then, the human story is added on top, a story of mothers and daughters, female ambition and its downfalls, and the interaction of women with history. 

Even when you’ve got two and a half hours, it would take a miracle to satisfy an audience craving the answers to these huge questions. Perhaps that’s the point of the play, that it’s ambiguous, revealing concepts and then leaving you contemplating and questioning your own beliefs about such things. But it does make you wonder, if the play had focused more on the central environmentalist idea, would it have had more influence?

Overall, the acting in this production was particularly impressive, as every cast member gave a convincing and committed performance. However, McElhinney was the clear standout as May, the fiery runaway turned jaded mother who took us on this journey through time. McElhinney gave a powerful performance, embodying the character in an intense yet vulnerable way, making her heartbreakingly relatable. 

The relationship between May and her daughter Amy (Abbey Morgan) was especially moving, with the actresses creating brutally realistic moments which grounded the play and humanised the political concepts that were being explored. Their personal storyline also added some much-needed humour to soften the darker themes and keep the audience engaged.

Michael Abercromby gave a memorable turn as Joss, May’s husband at first and then a poetic narrator throughout the rest of the play. Abercromby was an enthralling presence on the stage and his booming delivery of the narration infused the lines with meaning. In these in-between scenes, Joss carried us forward in time with lines like “she walks through lands, through empires, through time”, creating a dreamlike feeling that supported the more surreal concepts of the production.

Oil was a unique and ambitious play, and although this led to some compelling moments, the excessive scope of the piece meant that it felt unfocused and mismatched rather than intriguingly ambiguous. Despite this, the powerful performances, elegant, detailed sets, and memorable script ensured that this timely, progressive production left a lasting impact. 



Oil is showing at the Heath Ledger Theatre in the State Theatre Centre until 27 November.

Reviewer attended on 9 November 2022.