Slick play 

• Hayley McElhinney stars as May in the epic play Oil showing at the Heath Ledger Theatre.

WTH the supply and cost of energy becoming a political pawn in Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the play Oil has never been so relevant and topical.

First released in London in 2016 where it wowed audiences and critics, the epic and ambitious play spans 160 years and examines the fall and rise of a crude oil dynasty, drawing comparisons with the collapse of the Roman empire.

At the heart of the story is May (Hayley McElhinney) who we first meet in the depths of a cold Cornish winter in 1889, when the age of oil is just beginning.

“A travelling salesman comes to the door and show her this new invention – the kerosene lamp,” says Oil director Adam Mitchell.

“And then we are in Persia in the turn of the 19th century, then we are in modern-day Iraq, and from there we head off into the future.

“As the popularity of oil spreads around our planet we chase May through time more than 160 years and it is really compelling.

“It is a story of energy of our environment and of empire.”

The play was written by Ella Hickson, a young British playwright, and premiered at London’s Almedia Theatre, a hotbed of new writing talent in the UK.

“Almedia’s mission statement was to launch the next generation of British artists onto the world stage, and this is what happened with this play,” Mitchell says.

The Australian production features 10 actors, 17 characters and more than 35 costumes, with the script updated to reflect changes in society and politics since its debut six years ago.

“According to the playwright Ella Hickson, she had always wanted to write a play and to set it on an oil rig, looking at gender politics,” Mitchell says.

“Her father was involved in the oil industry and so as a kid she was fascinated by it. 

“As an adult she became increasingly interested in global warming and what was going to happen to the world as finite resources came to their end?

“Would the market solve the problem? Would governments? Would humans have to react pre-emptively?” 

“This thinking led to a play that asks ‘whether we ever really act selflessly – can we ever act beyond our own person interests in order to save our species or our planet?’, Mitchell said”

As the decades pass in Oil, May successfully grows her petroleum empire, but difficulties with her daughter Amy (Abbey Morgan) intensify and become problematic as they head into a dystopian future. 

Will family triumph over greed and money?

Oil set and costume designer Zoë Atkinson says the play is deep and complex, but May and Amy humanise the story and provide an emotional anchor for the audience.

“It charts the history of our relationship with oil in the west, and at the same time follows the journey of May and her daughter Amy over an impossibly long time span,” she says.

“ It maps societal change and the way the character of May navigates the patriarchy; with issues that are thrown up around consumption, the capitalist economy and models of power and how these have shifted.”

Mitchell says the epic play has something for everyone and covers everything from motherhood to geopolitics.

Oil is everything great theatre should be; ambitious, exciting and brimming with heart,” he says.

“Spanning empires and centuries, it takes us on a journey of big ideas in the search for light. It’s the kind of play that comes about once in a decade.”

Oil is at The Heath Ledger Theatre in Northbridge from November 5 – 27. Tix at


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