Crude: An Exploration Of Oil
Port of Dundee
Until October 23
Walking On Walls
Seen at Oran Mor, Glasgow;
transferring to Traverse, Edinburgh,
Reviewed by Mark Brown
“Money”, as the song has it, “makes the world go round”. However, as we are reminded by Crude: An Exploration Of Oil (the latest show by Scotland’s site-specific theatre specialists Grid Iron), the modern, globalised economy runs on the fossil fuel that is both capitalism’s most controversial and most ubiquitous commodity.
The play is performed in a cavernous, metal shed in the Port of Dundee; to which, having had their photo IDs checked, audience members are bussed from a city centre car park. On arrival at the port, we are met with the impressive sight of an illuminated oil rig (currently harboured on Tayside for maintenance work); indeed, one suspects that the rig, rather than the shed in which the production is presented, is the primary reason for writer/director Ben Harrison’s choice of location.
Inside the shed itself, illuminated hard hats guide us to our seats and to a huge stage that is dominated by a representation of an oil well and a massive screen (on which we see a counter giving us the burgeoning figure for the number of barrels of oil extracted worldwide since our buses pulled into the port at 7.55pm). The show that unfolds is a very well researched, but frustratingly uneasy, combination of documentary drama with disjointed playlets that explore diverse issues relating to the international oil industry.
A Scottish oil contractor is kidnapped in the Niger Delta (where rage about the economic and environmental price of the oil industry has created an African “Wild West”); an abseiling environmental activist is charged with “terrorism” offences in Russia; a North Sea worker’s marriage begins to implode under the pressure of his absences. As these stories, and others, are played out by a talented ensemble, we are also offered an array of (often sobering) facts about oil and a series of horrifying recollections from survivors of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster in which 167 North Sea workers died.
It is coincidental, no doubt, that Crude is being staged while the Dundee Rep Ensemble are touring their production of John McGrath’s famous play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil. There is no coincidence, however, in the fact that one of the leading characters in Grid Iron’s show is a Stetson-wearing American oil man called Texas Jim; a figure who, according to one’s taste, has either been reverently borrowed or shamelessly stolen from McGrath’s drama.
One admires the ambition of Crude, but, in contrast to Roam (the piece inspired by the airline industry, which Harrison directed inside Edinburgh International Airport for Grid Iron and the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006), this makes for an overloaded, incoherent and (thanks to its choice of venue) uncomfortably cold 90 minutes of theatre. The production’s attempts to impress with video work, aerial performance and song founder on both the show’s structural weaknesses and its poor choice of venue.
The capacious shed has such dreadful, reverberating acoustics that (despite the actors wearing microphones) much of what is said and sung is lost. For an experienced site-specific company such as Grid Iron to select such an unsuitable venue really is difficult to forgive.
There’s a different kind of unevenness in Walking On Walls, Morna Pearson’s new drama for the famous lunchtime theatre season A Play, A Pie And A Pint. This mini-play is what one might call, on account of its front-loaded frivolity, a comitragedy.
Set in a typical, open plan office, director Rosie Kellagher’s production finds irresponsible dog owner Fraser (Andy Clark) trussed up by Claire (Helen Mackay), an obsessive statistics analyst who seems to be colliding neighbourhood watch activism with the exploits of the characters from Marvel comics. As the “gender neutral”, would-be superhero SHP (Super Helpful Person) and her unfortunate captive wait for the understandably tardy cops to arrive, we are treated to a play of sometimes pleasing silliness and occasional flashes of wit (not least a very decent gag about Mary Poppins).
Claire, it transpires, is the kind of person who helpfully calculates people’s life expectancy in relation to their current alcohol intake. As she boasts of the inevitably rigorous tidiness of her workstation, her assertion that she is “not a nerd” grows flimsier by the minute.
Although the piece is light on its feet, there is obviously something lurking in both the recesses of Claire’s mind and a troubled past she shares with Fraser. Like a latter day Aesop, Pearson pulls out the morals (regarding the impact of school bullying and the need for people in glass houses not to lob stones) with a touch that is somewhat less-than-subtle.
Nevertheless, Walking On Walls is a painless, if not particularly memorable, 50 minutes of theatre; and one that is certainly blessed to have, in Mackay and Clark, two of the best actors currently working in Scottish theatre.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 16, 2016
© Mark Brown