Almeida Theatre, London – until 26 November 2016
CO-CRITIC LUKE JONES, VIRTUOUSLY UNLUBRICATED, DEPLOYS THE DIPSTICK OF JUDGEMENT.
What I like about the Almeida is that is that the audience smells as if they’ve been bathing in red wine right up until entering the auditorium. Good stuff, mind. But troubling when the shimmering projections of oilfields, fighter jets and motorways on stage give way to a set lit only by candles.
Ella Hickson’s play is essentially two concerns; Oil and family. It’s the question of why we feel we have the right to be warm when it’s cold outside, combined with the turbulence of a mother/daughter relationship. To mine this, Hickson drills into lives across a 200 year period.
A late 19th Century farm in Devon, appalled and intrigued by an American visitor’s kerosene lamp (“It stinks!”), runs straight through to somewhere at the back-end of this century. A mother and daughter, sat freezing, are appalled and intrigued by a Chinese visitor’s cold-fusion home energy kit. Neat. Along the way we drop into Persia, 70’s Hampstead (let’s give the audience a little bit of what they know) and an unnamed Middle-Eastern war in 2021.
In the finger-burning cold of the candle-lit farm, Anne-Marie Duff’s May is the one seduced by the oily man’s demonstration. We’re “bleeding it, sweating it”. She’s ambitious, pregnant. It’s lit something in her, so she runs away. The gripping drama is off. Duff gives us a painfully powerful performance, but is persistently dragged back to trot through quite bland dialogue about energy policy, OPEC, Libya and China. All interesting, but there’s a better show going on, and it’s on the same stage.
For the first half this drip drip drip of oil is nicely managed. It informs, but doesn’t control. The play gives a mixed picture and isn’t the Green Party political broadcast some of us were expecting. We’re given wittily drawn portraits of destructive government types and idealistic young lovers. Carrie Cracknell’s production lifts the humorously human, but indulges in strange flashing projections of oil fields and fighter jets. Stock imagery doesn’t make a strong message.
But running through all this confusion is Duff’s troubled pragmatist; compromise, responsibility and the most expressive face on the English stage. Duff’s performance is like combustion, sparring beautifully with lesser mortals on all sides.
So far, so good. When we return from the interval, noticeably refuelled on Rioja, we find a lesser play. Yolanda Kettle, as May’s daughter Amy, is given the glibbest scene about the middle east I have ever heard and her performance arrives in primary colours of whining. The pull of their relationship sours in the surroundings of glib China gags, nonsense futurism and tired nods to the cyclical nature of the play creaking to completion.
If you left at the interval, you’d probably have better conversations in the car home. It had a fiery start, but unfortunately ran out of fuel.
Box Office 020 7359 4404 To 26 Nov.