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Review: Oil at the Heath Ledger Theatre

Reviewed by Tatum Stafford

The incredibly poignant, detailed and emotionally charged story of ‘Oil’ made for a performance not to forget when it opened to a full house on opening night, as the final piece of Black Swan Theatre Company’s 2022 season.

Beginning on a farm in 1800s Cornwall, the play centres on a woman named May as she traverses through time and different continents, including a stint in Tehran, the United Kingdom and back to where it all began, many decades later. Along the way, we meet May’s daughter Amy, and observe the entanglements both women go through with different men and women throughout time.

Though the characters reflect very relatable situations and relationships, the play’s time span of more than 150 years (focused on the same central character, May), encourages the audience to check cynicism at the door and dive into May’s fascinating journey.

Such an ambitious theatrical work would not be successful without the fantastic group of actors that bring it to life.

Hayley McElhinney’s performance as May is magnetic. May rarely leaves the stage, unless to change costume, and McElhinney delivers a beautiful performance throughout May’s different phases of life; from mischievous yet determined farmer’s wife to despondent retiree. May’s daughter Amy is played with plenty of gusto from recent WAAPA graduate Abbey Morgan. The two work so cohesively and effectively together, and it is a real treat to watch such a realistic portrayal of the mother-daughter dynamic throughout the show’s vast timespan.

McElhinney and Morgan are brilliantly supported by the rest of the ‘Oil’ cast; Michael Abercromby’s tender Joss, Violette Ayad’s strong performances as Annie/Ana/Aminah, Will Bastow’s hilarious turn as Amy’s average boyfriend Nate (as well as William Whitcomb in the opening Cornwall scene), Grace Chow’s Fanny and Fan Wang, of which the latter left the audience both giggling and appearing audibly shocked within a matter of minutes, St John Cowcher’s bumbling compassion as Tom, Polly Low’s stern but fair and loving Ma Singer, Tinashe Mangwana’s self-assured and charming Mr Farouk, and Will O’Mahony’s sleazy Officer Samuel.

Adam Mitchell’s direction of this production is absolutely inspired; providing all of the performers and production team members with plenty to play with and many beautiful moments of connection. Zoe Atkinson’s sets are breathtaking, and her costume work is incredibly intelligent; providing each character with plenty of agency, and for May and Amy, plenty to build upon as years go by. Matthew Marshall’s lighting design is fantastic also.

The rest of the production team, including Melanie Robinson (Composer and Sound Designer), Jean Goodwin (Vocal Coach), Scott McArdle (Assistant Director), Sue Fenty (Stage Manager), Erin Coubrough and Annabelle Rossie (Assistant Stage Managers), should be commended for such a slick and visually impressive production that moves with pace and showcases the incredible talent we have here in WA and Australia.

‘Oil’ profiles and amplifies a number of crucial conversations within the cultural zeitgeist, and, here in WA, many of the show’s prominent themes about oil reserves and future resources would ring very true for many audience members. An incredibly important, modern and impressive piece of theatre.

Image Credit: Daniel J Grant


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