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oil : a thought provoking, stimulating production

Damien Strouthos as Tom, Brooke Satchwell as May, Saif Alawadi as Mr Farouk
Jing-Xuan Chan as Fan Wang, Charlotte Friels as Amy
Charlotte Friels as Amy, Brooke Satchwell as May,, Violette Ayad as Anne, Benedict Samuel as Officer Samuel
Josh McConville as Joss and Brooke Satchwell as May


Spanning more than 150 years, OIL – by British playwright Ella Hickson –  is a journey, a time-travel of a mother, May, (Brooke Satchwell) and her daughter, Amy, (Charlotte Friels).  As the decades fly by between scenes, mother and daughter grow old together.  Although they share a close bond, they also have opposing philosophies.  Ambitious May pursues power in the corporate oil world and later in her political life.  Amy is clever, passionate  and feisty like her Irish mother but, in contrast, is outspoken in defence of the environment.

The program says: “OIL is set across five distinct time periods, each coinciding with a key moment in the modern history of petroleum (crude oil) and its geopolitical contexts”.

The play begins in a dark, icy cold and candlelit farmhouse in Cornwall in 1889.  May and her husband Joss, (played with endearing charisma by Josh McConville), are expecting their first child.   As the extended family huddle around their dimly lit table for dinner, there is a knock on the door.  American huxter, William Whitcomb, dazzles them with the brand new kerosene lamp.  The room is now bright and warm.  The family are indifferent but May is consumed by visions of a future where her new baby can be kept warm.  When her husband rejects Whitcomb’s offer of a huge sum of money to buy his land, Amy has other ideas.  She loves Joss but leaves the farm.

Forward to Tehran, 1908.  May is working as a servant.  Her pre-teen daughter, Amy, is playing under the table which is laden with opulent food.  They are at the British Foreign Office residences in the Persian/Iran capital. Emissaries are there negotiating. 

(The “Anglo Persian Oil Company” was set up in 1909, the following year, which later became British Petroleum). Naval Officer Samuel, (played by Benedict Samuel with vivacity and humour), brings his champagne into the dining room and enjoys the company of May and her daughter Amy.  May abandons her job and co-worker Mr Thomas (played by Damien Strouthos) to move in with the impulsive, charming Officer Samuel.  Driven again by her focused ambition.

After another dazzling set change, we are now in 1970 at May’s Hampstead home in London.  May is now CEO of an international oil company.  She and business partner ‘Tom’ (Strouthos), are meeting with a Libyan representative of Colonel Qaddafi’s new regime, emissary Mr Farouk.  May refuses to compromise on Libya’s proposal to nationalise its assets.

May is also trying to retain control of her daughter Amy who is now a wild teen; provocative, radical and determined to keep her new boyfriend, Nate (played by Callan Colley). 

The final two scenes move into the future; Bagdad in 2025, then Cornwall again in 2050.  There has been a dramatic shift in the consumption of natural resources.

OIL is thought provoking and interesting, even though the relationships within the timeline of the play can sometimes be unclear.

Satchwell and Friels give committed and passionate performances.  The whole ensemble cast are wonderful and credit should be given to the director, Paige Rattray, for the fast and invigorating pace of the show.

Even the five set changes are done with great aplomb.

The dynamic set designs by Emma White and brilliant lighting by Paul Jackson should be highly commended.  As should the great sound design by Clemence Williams – subtle and haunting.  They all enriched the play.

David Fleischer’s costumes were also dynamic.  He had a lot of eras to portray. Especially good were the 2050 outfits.

OIL is a stimulating play.  The history of oil and the British Empire’s involvement is significant. 

The new Wharf 1 theatre-in-the-round is spacious and well designed.

OIL plays at The Sydney Theatre Company, Walsh Bay, until the 16th December, 2023.

Featured photo is Charlotte Friels as  Amy and Callam Colley as Nate. Production photography by Prudence Upton

Review by Bronwyn  Fullerton


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