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Theatre

A ziggurat of bilge: Oil at the Almeida reviewed

Plus: One Night In Miami... at the Donmar is more like a choirboys’ convention than a party to celebrate one of the greatest nights in sporting history

22 October 2016

9:00 AM

22 October 2016

9:00 AM

Oil

Almeida, until 26 November

One Night in Miami...

Donmar Warehouse, until 3 December

Ella Hickson’s new play analyses our relationship with oil using the sketch format. First, there’s a candlelit soap opera set in Cornwall, in 1889, with a lot of ooh-arr bumpkins firing witless insults at each other. Next, a bizarre Persian scene, set in 1908, where a Scottish footman (who uses the celebrated Edwardian colloquialism ‘OK’) rescues a ditzy waitress from a sex-maniac serving in the British army. Then we move to Hampstead, in 1970, where a female oil magnate is visited by a Libyan diplomat seeking to nationalise her wells by waving documents at her, in her kitchen, while teenage kids pop in and out performing oral sex on each other. (This is one of the most disorganised pieces of stage writing I’ve ever witnessed.)

The next sketch is openly contradictory. The script identifies the location as ‘nr Kirkuk’ and ‘outside Baghdad’, although the cities are 236 km distant from one another. The year is 2021. We watch as a pair of querulous lesbians, one English, one Arabic, are confronted by the English girl’s bad-tempered mum. Finally, we’re in a post-apocalyptic world where two fat waffling grannies are sold a cold-fusion device by a shifty Chinawoman. That’s it.

Can anything be salvaged from this ziggurat of bilge? Certainly Hickson has a flair for drawing icy, proud domineering characters who treat conversation as a game of judgmental one-upmanship. But levity and warmth are alien to her. Just occasionally a sliver of excellence emerges. ‘You’re a pebble from Surbiton,’ says a narky mum, crushingly, to a teenage git. The mouthy footman in scene two is silenced by the observation that self-righteousness is a hallmark of political impotence. But these are pretty meagre gleanings from three hours of dialogue, most of which seems to have passed unedited from the keyboard to the script.


My guess is that Hickson really wants to write about chippy mums locking horns with their rebellious daughters, but artistic directors want large ideas and grand motifs: politics, religion, war, and so on. Hence this attempted ‘history of oil’ which keeps turning into snitty gobbets of parent/kid angst.

Kemp Powers’s play One Night in Miami has a fascinating cast list. February 1964. Cassius Clay celebrates his victory in the world heavyweight championship with Sam Cooke, Jim Brown (an American football star) and Malcolm X. Having assembled his company of titans, the playwright is unsure how to proceed. He tries to create some uncertainty. Will Malcolm X persuade Clay to join the Nation of Islam? Yes. Might he also recruit Sam Cooke and Jim Brown? No. This is ancient history. And having forfeited his attempt at drama the writer’s only option is to be nice. He’s nice to the characters and the characters are nice to each other. They spend their time shadow-boxing, singing songs, discussing ice cream, talking about girls and wondering if they might sneak some whisky into the hotel. At one point they nearly take an illicit swig from Sam Cooke’s hip flask but not quite. It’s like a choirboys’ convention rather than a party to celebrate one of the greatest nights in sporting history. The characters dwindle into formulaic blandness. Clay is a charming simpleton. Cooke, a wittering smartypants. Brown, a laidback dud. Malcolm X, a manipulative prig.

Inelegant construction mars the play’s claims to naturalism. Malcolm X is being held captive by bodyguards from the Nation of Islam who refuse him permission to go to a restaurant with Clay and Cooke. Yet they don’t mind when he pops out to fetch a camera from his car. Nor do they object to a second visit to a music shop where he buys Bob Dylan’s latest single. He plays the track, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, to Sam Cooke who looks utterly ashamed to discover that a white boy has written the ultimate protest anthem. Then Cooke announces that he’s already heard the song. Then he says he’s already been influenced by it. Then he sings the result of that influence, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Then he announces that he recorded the track a month earlier. So it’s inexplicable that he looked ashamed when ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ was played. The facts don’t suit the writer’s design, so he bashes them out of shape and hopes no one
will notice.

At the end of this pious drivel the crowd went into ecstasies of rapture. During the fourth curtain call I slipped away because the mood was turning fervently self-righteous. I feared that a community leader might leap up on stage and say, ‘Brothers and sisters, please exchange the sign of peace with a fellow ticket-holder whose skin colour you do not share.’ It was that kind of night.


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