Wharf 1 Theatre, November 9


Josh McConville and Brooke Satchwell. Photos: Prudence Upton.

We get caught in spirals of desire. It happens with alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, shopping and even fossil fuels. We always want more. Perhaps greed is hardwired into us. Ella Hickson’s gravity-defying 2016 play is partly about how that lust for oil shaped 150 years of human history; partly about a specific mother/daughter friction that comes to stand for all such relationships.

Hickson sets each of her five acts in a different era, with an evolving oil dependence. The same mother, May (Brook Satchwell) and daughter Amy (Charlotte Friels) inhabit each era, with Amy simultaneously a spinning metaphor for oil. In Act One, set in 1889 Cornwall, kerosene lamps have just been invented and May is pregnant with Amy to Joss, her grand passion, but a husband who confronts the future by clinging to the past. In the second, in 1908 Persia, the British have just begun mining oil, and Amy is a sprightly eight-year-old. Act Three is in 1970 England, and Amy is an unruly teen, just as Gaddafi’s Libya is bucking up against British oil exploitation. For the fourth we’re in 2021 Baghdad, with Amy a 20-something activist appalled by the 2003 invasion, and her mother a British MP who strikes a deal to quadruple Iraqi oil production to help pay for reconstruction. Finally, we’re shot into 2050 Cornwall, where, with oil running out, a much older Amy and May bicker like sisters over the endless blackouts. Fan Wang (Jing-Xuan Chan) arrives to flog a Toroid, a miniature nuclear reactor that lights and warms their bleak house, just as the first kerosene lamp did in 1889.

Brooke Satchwell, Charlotte Friels and Violette Ayad. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Not many people dare to write epics in this age of issues-based plays. Oil, of course, is issues-based, too, but Hickson is never wantonly didactic. She earths the play in an evolving human relationship, and then dares to cut the string to her own balloon in terms of time and place, love and hate, oil and money. As Fan Wang says at the end, “The Western Empire, like the Roman Empire that had come before, made the false assumption that their version of modernity was modernity itself.”

Director Paige Rattray’s STC production does not quite live up to the play. It’s well cast (notably Josh McConville as Joss, the husband whom May forsakes), but it doesn’t quite sustain the intensity, or the sense of enormity rendered familial, that it should, especially given it’s performed in the round, so we’re all only metres from the action. That intensity is present in the grubby domesticity of 1889, but even then the revelation of the kerosene lamp seems undercooked: the lighting should explode relative to the candlelight in which the family squabbles.

Brooke Satchwell and Benedict Samuel. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Hickson lets humour creep into her play slyly, like a lover it has on the side. It’s there in the satirised hypocrisy of colonial-era Persia, and in the typically stubborn mother-teen fighting of Act Three. The playwright also successfully flirts with a heightened tone, as when May tells Amy’s first (inept) lover, Nate (Callan Colley), “I will not watch her try to believe a god into you.”

Ultimately, as the anagrammatic names suggest, May and Amy are hewn from the same Cornwall dirt. Each knows she exists because she fights the world, with May trying to milk it and Amy to save it. Friels is capable of catching Amy’s balloon-off-the-string lightness, and Satchwell can rise to towering rages as May, but we’re not as moved as I suspect we should be.

Until December 16.