Oil is, as Ella Hickson shows in her century-straddling new play at The Almeida, a finite resource. But what Hickson also shows is that when prospectors first struck oil in the 1900s – where her play begins – they struck deep into a well of non-finite resources, namely greed, stupidity, racism and imperialism.
In five acts that slide through five different periods – 19th century England; early 20th century Persia; a 1970s meeting between British oil executives and a share-expropriating Libyan government official; a present-day meeting between a British MP and her aid-worker daughter; and the future in a dystopian blackout-ridden Cornwall – different versions of May (Anne-Marie Duff) and her daughter Amy, played by the show-stealing Yolanda Kettle, chase the dividends promised by black gold.
The up-to-the minute script (there are jokes about the value of the pound and Hinkley Point) is snappy and smart, particularly in the 1970s section, and provides a whistle-stop, if rather A-level textbook, tour of oil’s history. Its one-dimensional view of crude’s legacy – yes, it’s done a lot of bad, but few of the props on The Almeida stage would exist without it, and neither would much else of modern life’s paraphernalia – largely ignores the way oil has improved the lives of the vast majority of people. It offers a more subtle view of its other key focus, the mother-daughter relationship, where it shows how easily the power politics and manipulative tactics of oil profiteers transfer to a domestic setting.
But as the play comes full vicious circle at the end, it feels as if it too is drawing on finite resources: characters become less and less rounded, lines are re-used, and Amy, as her anagrammatic name suggests she was always going to, betrays her youthful ideals and becomes the next generation’s version of money-grabbing May. While these plot developments work artistically, and provide a very neat ending, in a play so concerned with geopolitical history they expose a disappointingly reductive – and somewhat hackneyed – view of matters.
Carrie Cracknell’s direction is slick, and Vicki Mortimer’s elegantly elliptical design is as beautiful as a Rembrandt in the early scenes, yet neither can rescue a play that while admirable for its scope and ambition, is in need of refining.
Runs until 26 November