There’s a lovely shape to Oil, both in the writing and the staging of this fantastic production by Red Stitch. Removed from the crucible-like smaller venue that is home base on Chapel Street, Oil is staged at a new, alternative space at the Cromwell Road Theatre.
The audience are placed in loose traverse with the action playing back and forth mostly on the floor, curving up at the far end onto the stage proper. Greg Clarke’s set design forms a curve, like the one rising in the story through many years, from 19th century Cornwall up into the future.
With its series of scenes taking place across time, there’s a resemblance to Alan Moore’s novel, Voice of the Fire. However, while Moore’s story had its chapters all taking place on the same geographical area in Northampton, playwright Ella Hickson’s text explores the geopolitical space and the role petroleum has had in the rise and dominance of Western civilisation as well as the costs – political, economic, moral – that comes wrapped up with it.
Hickson’s sleight of hand is to tell this story mostly on the periphery – a consequence of an engaging drama played between a mother and her daughter. Despite each scene leaping ahead decades, there’s a continuous conversation somehow taking place, from an expectant mother, to a mother of a young child, then a teenager, an adult, and then later. Its grand scope is brought to life courtesy of terrific design and storytelling.
Lighting designer, Clare Springett, brings a small portion of Barry Lyndon to the stage in the opening scene, lit almost completely by candlelight. Light and heat are not to be taken for granted in this setting, even as they quickly are as time advances. Each scene has its own distinct quality, connected by Charlie Cousins’ and Hannah Fredericksen’s lyrical exposition in-between, an ethereal spotlight up on them, and then away.
Daniel Nixon’s sound design was delicate but never fragile, the music helping to lift moments and cover transitions. Nothing – whether in design or the performances – felt rushed or forced.
Daniela Farinacci was tremendous as May, the mother figure whose concern for and conflict with her daughter parallels the larger themes distilled, refined, and bubbling underneath. It was a masterful performance that with the others anchored the story in something truthful and compelling.
Fredericksen had more ground to cover in the role of May’s daughter, Amy, navigating her character from a child to an adult. Each age comes with its own demands in terms of questions and beliefs, and each age was depicted wonderfully by Hannah in sometimes fun always passionate performance.
In the low-lit first scene, Cousins was suitably grounded and resolute in his turn as Joss, as was Jennifer Vuletic as the brutally pragmatic Ma Singer. Khisraw Jones-Shukoor did fine work as Mr. Farouk, representing one of many moral compromises in a thrilling middle scene where international affairs are debated in an unassuming domestic kitchen.
Playing a raft of characters throughout the show were a committed and brilliant remaining cast in Nicole Nabout, Matthew Whitty, Jing-Xuan Chan, Justin Hosking, and Darcy Brown.
It’s fascinating when the play steps into the near future before making larger strides in the final scene. There are tendrils and suggestions – such as the effectiveness of renewables, or the corruption of that industry by a modern world unwilling to look at a post-oil future with anything approaching altruism – that enriches the experience of watching this impressive production.
Director Ella Caldwell has taken an ambitious text and, with her cast, woven an extraordinary show.
Cromwell Road Theatre, 27A Cromwell Road, South Yarra
Performance: Sunday 17 November 2019 – 6.30pm
Season continues to 15 December 2019
Information and Bookings: www.redstitch.net
Image: Daniela Farinacci – photo by John Lloyd Fillingham
Review: David Collins