Oil review by Lyn Zelen

 ****.5 stars

 Earth can’t exist on the smell of an oily rag forever; motherly instinct and love can.

An inventive team of creatives, the perceptive direction of Ella Caldwell and the gifted Red Stitch Actors present the Australian premiere of Ella Hickson’s—Oil.

Hickson’s imaginative time-travelling story sheds light on a mother’s ever-present quest for her daughter’s well being over millennia.

The momentum of Hickson’s extraordinary story spans decades, centuries, time and dimensions. From the conception of her daughter Amy to deception, the promise of warmth and dividends fuel and seduce May and her daughter to travel from Cornwall to the desert in Tehran in 1908, back to Hampstead in 1970, weathering the depleted planet by 2021 in Bagdad and a futuristic Cornwall in the late twenty-first century.

Can the planet weather the demise of a finite resource? Can the mother and daughter dynamics weather the natural progression of Amy growing up, her mother’s greed, and is there any room for gratitude?

Cromwell Road Theatre hosts the innovative production on a minimalist and effective set, in a combination of Trust and Arena style of stages where the audience have a choice of sitting within centimetres of the players on central stage or high above it all, purveying Hickson’s ingenious story.

Caldwell utilises the resourceful Red Stitch ensemble in the space—a spot lit narrator punctuates the scenes and key performances in seamless perceptions of time travel in the Trust stage aspects of the theatre.

Cromwell Road Theatre is pitch-black, embodying a dark winter’s day in 1889 on a remote farm in Cornwall, UK. Central stage, four women dressed in shabby shawls and skirts are going about their daily chores, casting eerie figures in the candlelight.

Outside on the Singer family farm, Joss Singer (Charlie Cousins), keeps warm chopping wood for the fire inside, where his wife May (Daniela Farinacci) and her in-laws scrub clothes and prepare dinner as the fire dwindles.

Joss and May are desperately in love. May is with child and finds herself beholden to her overpowering mother-in-law Ma Singer (Jennifer Vuletic), contending with the unwelcome advances from her brother-in-law, and sharing the squalid confines with extended family and farm hands in the cramped farm cottage.

It’s so cold May “can’t feel her fingers”; she’s frozen to the bone and temporarily neglects her chores to find some carnal warmth outside in the barn in the arms of Joss. The creepy overbearing Ma Singer spies on their lovemaking before interrupting them barking orders at May to return inside and start plucking feathers from the rotting chicken carcass for the household dinner.

The damp logs Joss chopped won’t burn properly and the candles are almost burnt to the wick. All freezing they eat morsels of barely palatable rancid food when an American travelling salesman arrives at the Singer farm.

A dashing Mr. Whitcomb (Darcy Brown) is selling kerosene and demonstrates its wonders in a lamp that offers the Singer family more than light; Mr. Whitcomb wants to buy their farm sitting on untapped reserves of oil.

Ma Singer is not interested; neither is a rifle-wielding Joss, he points it at Mr. Whitcomb, bidding him a hasty farewell. May is mesmerized by the warmth and light of the lamp and having learnt kerosene comes from oil, she longs for more than endless winters on the isolated farm and rotting food for her unborn child.

Domesticity and domestic violence has May seeking greener and warmer pastures. She leaves the love her of life Joss, for the future prospects for her daughter.

Her wanderings take her “fictitiously” to the Anglo-Oil fields in Tehran in the year 1908. Newly single May finds herself a maid in service for the British aristocracy and Militia. Amy (Hannah Frederickson) her daughter is now eight years old.

Hickson’s surprising story has mother and daughter repeating history in a different era with the similar virtuous men wishing to make an honest women of May and care for her daughter, whilst others care only for May’s feminine wiles and her “wild eyes”.

Oil is a tale that intertwines the lure of financial freedom and responsibility, the similarities and hardships for both Arabic and English women in the early nineteen century and parenthood through the eyes of innocent Amy. They experience the subservience expected at the hands of abusive men—both May and Ana (Nicole Nabout) soon feel the wrath of male dominance.

The intricate first act, though slow moving at times, contains accurate convincing performances from the gentle and honorable. Farinacci and Cousins have an electric connection—and are individually accomplished. Thomas (Justin Hosking) is a credible necessary background player pertinent to the plot, as is the fiery Officer (Mathew Whitty) towards May and Ana, and the tender unconditional love between mother and daughter—Amy plays a delightful eight-year-old and quirky teenager.

The substantial interval is timely in the three-hour program. The second act jumps headlong into the year 1970. The fashions and kitchen fittings are authentically fabulous in May and Amy’s Hampstead home.

May is on track; an executive firmly entrenched in the oil industry. At fifteen, Amy has her mother’s “wild eyes and ways” and is seeking love from her absent career mum in the arms of her older boyfriend Nate.

Caldwell embraces Hickson’s satirical take on the 1970s and the hormone fueled dynamics of a budding teenager battling her aging, middle class mother. Again, Farinacci and Frederickson and are a brilliant partnership as mother and daughter. Their demonstrative dialogue with injections of welcomed witty humour provides a light change in the otherwise serious plot. Hickson’s incredibly insightful language is pertinent to all mother’s struggling for equal opportunities in that period.

The story takes a political turn in times of war—Bagdad’s oil in the late 1980s. At the same time, Amy, now in her twenties, has grown up, found herself and inner peace.

The company’s Mr. Farouk (Khisraw Jones-Shukoor) suggests May curb her political aspirations, to err on the side of caution and take her daughter back to England with her. Will May throw caution to the wind?

May enlists the help of Amy’s Arabic friend Aminah (Nicole Nabout), to track down her daughter. Emotions run high, Aminah gets a monetary pay off from May for her help and Amy feels betrayed. Look out for Hickson’s clever parallels here between the war for fuel and their hypocritical power plays.

There’s yet another jump further forward to the desolate late twenty first century. Unmarried middle-aged Amy lives with her ailing mother. She’s forced to work from home in times of scarce fossil fuels and exorbitant energy costs.

Hickson’s story questions and entertains thoughts of life’s repetitions, opportunities, and euphemisms. In this late century, its the comic styling’s and kindness of Miss Fan Wang (Jing-Xuan Chan), with her Chinese energy saving, clean fuel hydrogen device and cheap payment plan, so May and Amy can turn the lights back on and cook a meal.

Oil explores all relationships and celebrates the cultural diversity of individual countries. Amy, Aminah and Fan Wang characters speak contextual purposeful Arabic and Mandarin that adds an authentic touch to Hendrickson’s multicultural tale.

Oil speaks volumes; fuel the world with a universal language, the language of love.Proposing all “generations stop blaming the generation in power for war on resources and become the generation of power instead”.

Performances:               4.5 / 5

Costumes:                     4.5 / 5

Sets:                              4.5 / 5

Lighting:                                 4.5 / 5

Sound:                                    4.5 / 5

Direction:                      4.5 / 5

Stage Management:       4.5 / 5

Images: John Lloyd