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Review: OIL, Almeida Theatre, 14 October 2016

You have to admire the grand scope of Ella Hickson's long-gestating new play, which grapples with urgent ideas about this vital but declining resource amidst audacious magic realist time travel. Stretching from 19th-century Cornwall to a dystopian future, it's DH Lawrence meets Black Mirror, by way of David Hare - anchored by insightful deconstruction of the mother/daughter relationship. If it becomes unwieldy in places, it's still a rich and absorbing piece of work, and an all-too-rare female odyssey.

We begin in the dim candlelight of a Cornish farmhouse, soundtracked by the howl of a chill wind and grimly determined chopping of wood. A visiting American offers the inhabitants a vision of the future: kerosene, which will revolutionise their way of life. Anne-Marie Duff's pregnant May - wild and fiercely uncompromising in every time stream - is tempted away by this promise of light and warmth.

We next see her in Iran in 1908, drawn to a motor car as the imperial British try to secure the country's resources, then in Seventies Hampstead, discovering her oil company is under threat from Libyan reclamation, in Baghdad in 2021, debating the consequences of Western policy, and finally, in 2051, visited by yet another stranger offering a new energy source: this time nuclear, harvested from the moon.

May never ages, but her daughter Amy does - from plaintive moppet to stroppy teen to rebellious young woman, trying to carve out her own identity. But their anagrammatic names point to an unassailable co-dependency. May justifies her (often contentious) actions by arguing that she's making a better life for her child - behaviour we in the West are all guilty of, as we reframe instant gratification greed as necessity or even altruism. There's parallels, too, between overbearing parenting and patronising colonialism - "educating the natives".

Hickson also digs into the effects of social and technological progress. It allows for a greater degree of independence - Seventies May is a business-savvy single parent, while her 1880s counterpart shares a claustrophobic house with her interfering in-laws - but can also lead to loneliness. Feminist May first demands Amy focus on her future rather than her love life, but later admits she craves that intimacy. Machines take her further and further away from the primal and organic ­- earth, cold, blood, sex, family - leaving her cocooned and isolated.

Recurring ideas unite the disparate scenes - the claiming of land, the cost of ambition, unexpected visitors, imperial decline, Amy's polyglot talents, the nightmarish vision of a burning man - though a few transitions are bumpy and the writing varies, occasionally straying into illustrated lecture. The projections bluntly reinforce ideas better left to emerge naturally.

But Duff is the play's eternal fuel source, her May fractured through time and space and yet emerging as a full-blooded, magnificently complex creation. She's curious, carnal, outspoken, sharp-witted, caustic and a steely warrior, even if her constant ladder-climbing leaves blood on her hands.

Duff is well matched by Yolanda Kettle as her believable daughter, chaffing against May's guidance in acts of rebellion both small - smoking and parading her clueless boyfriend - and wilfully treacherous, as when she places herself in danger while peddling naïve arguments about the Middle East as a means of attacking her MP mother. Hickson's play is most impactful when its ideas are bound to human experience; when systems like capitalism or colonialism are addressed without that, it becomes a tad airless.

Among the supporting cast, Ellie Haddington is a marvellous curmudgeon of a matriarch, Patrick Kennedy a smooth-talking, sinister cad, Brian Ferguson an insidious middle manager, Tom Mothersdale lingers effectively as May's lost love, Lara Sawalha crisply undercuts our preconceptions, and Nabil Elouahabi is excellent as Gaddafi's no-nonsense emissary. Carrie Cracknell's sleek production benefits from Lucy Carter's evocative lighting, Peter Rice's startling sound design and Vicki Mortimer's smart design - from painterly tableau to a feast of Formica. Vivid and thought-provoking.

Oil at Almeida Theatre until 26 November

Photo credit: Richard H Smith

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