Wednesday 2 November 2016

Oil at the Almeida, or, “It's Going To Get Worse”

The Almeida under Rupert Goold, like the National under Rufus Norris, has become a venue that I approach pessimistically. Sadly this was another occasion when that pessimism proved all too justified.

This new play by Ella Hickson is, as the title makes obvious, about oil. It starts in Cornwall in the late nineteenth century when a random American turns up to bring kerosene to a squabbling, struggling farming family and ends sometime in the mid 21st century with a Chinese company discovering cold fusion and mining the moon. In between we visit pre-World War One Persia, 1970s London and 2021 Iraq. In theory these disparate locations are bound together by the two central characters of mother May (Anne-Marie Duff) and daughter Amy (Yolanda Kettle) but there's a problem. You may ask how it is that May, already pregnant in Scene 1, is still alive and looking not much older in Scene 5. The play makes absolutely no attempt to answer this question, or to provide any substitute scenario to explain who Duff and Kettle are playing in different scenes if it is not the same May/Amy. The result, by the time we reached Scenes 4 and 5, was to render the relationship, as far as I was concerned, hopelessly unbelievable.

This might have mattered less if the play showed any interest in giving depth to any of the other characters. But most of them last barely more than a scene and are often thinly drawn almost to the point of caricature. They also suffer from the fact that too often their behaviour seems locked into the structure of the play rather than being what such a character might believably do in a particular situation. A key instance of this is May ordering Amy's boyfriend from the house in Scene 3 - that the script allows neither him nor Kettle to challenge a woman who by this point is coming across as frankly a little mad was pretty thoroughly unconvincing.

The play is further not helped by various bits of narration delivered through microphones to pulsing electronic beats. At the very beginning this seems to be done on the premise that we can't be expected to work out where we are without it – this actually had the effect of making me less willing to believe in the freezing Cornish farm than I think I might otherwise have been. Elsewhere I found these interjections weakly written and superfluous.

The text also suffers from a tendency to lecture. I learnt nothing new about the issues with our dependency on oil. To be fair the play does try to give us two perspectives at points through mother and daughter, but this is never allowed to develop into a meaningful debate. The characters on these occasions end up functioning as megaphones for two extreme positions shouting past each other – the play pretty completely fails to get at how and why these two, as individuals, have really got to those positions. Nor does it help that, in so far as we do know them as individuals, they are thoroughly unpleasant people in whom it became impossible to take emotional interest.

Finally the play has that wearily familiar problem of new work, the inability to know how to stop. First Amy leaves May in an obvious mirroring of the ending of Scene 1. Then the American from Scene 1 reappears and he and May do a line dance. Finally Amy comes back on and gives a speech about how we'll all regret things later which breaks off in mid-sentence. The last two elements should certainly have been cut.

The staging is not much help either. There's a great deal of busyness in set changes, drawing curtains, moving platforms – but, as I seem to be saying sadly often these days, Carrie Cracknell's direction rarely finds those moments of stillness and the small gesture that can be so powerful. There is what seems another current inevitability - reliance on bits of projection between scenes, images of oil refineries and western statesmen/soldiers just in case we haven't got points the text is already tediously hammering home. In another ineffective but currently "in" device Cracknell keeps performers hanging visibly around on the edge of the set prior to their entrances. As on other occasions I failed to see what purpose this was supposed to serve beyond a distraction from the action as one wonders why the others are hovering about like that. And, finally, taking a leaf out of many a flailing opera production, at the end of Scene 3 people start throwing the furniture about (in this case a Cornish ghost from Scene 1 who briefly reappears before sinking into the floor).

The poor cast stuck in this can do little to salvage it. I've been powerfully moved by Anne-Marie Duff on many other occasions but here I was neither moved by the character nor felt compelled to attend to her. Yolanda Kettle is at her best in the 1970s scene. Elsewhere she sadly can't manage the demands of the role - in particular her ageing doesn't get close to the power of a performance like Kate O'Flynn's in the National production of Simon Stephens's Port (though that is of course an infinitely superior play). The rest are given too little to work with to make much impression – though I would like to see Lara Sawalha in a bigger role.

This is, in short, a pretty dire evening. From where I've been sitting the Almeida has had a depressingly long run of poor to indifferent shows. Sooner or later no doubt the streak has to break, but this was yet another occasion when that failed to happen. To be avoided.

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