First published in The Times, Friday October 14 2016
Any mention of North Sea Oil is most likely to bring to mind the city of Aberdeen, which has weathered the ups and downs of the industry for over 40 years. So, it’s refreshing that this ambitious exploration of oil production and its human and environmental impact, is brought to us by Grid Iron Theatre Company from Dundee, a city at the forefront of Scotland’s efforts to secure a slice of the lucrative oil rig decommissioning industry.
As the country’s leading purveyor of site-specific theatre, you would expect Grid Iron to come up with an impressive venue, and Shed 36 at the Port of Dundee certainly doesn’t disappoint. With three imposing exploration rigs docked outside, the shed itself is vast and eerily empty. The performance takes place on a specially constructed stage shaped like an oil platform and several storeys high, which nonetheless barely fills one tiny corner.
Pic: Eoin Carey
The show itself, watched from beneath blankets and several layers of clothing, examines the North Sea industry from a number of perspectives: oil workers and executives and their families, environmentalists, politicians and radicals. This dense collage, performed by a cast of eight, brings in everything from the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988, in which 167 workers died following an explosion on a North Sea production platform, to militant activity in the Niger Delta and the current scramble for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Circle.
These many interrelated strands come to feel a little overwhelming over the course of 100 minutes, with some of the ensemble set pieces falling foul of poor acoustics and a couple of rushed historical summaries, courtesy of the show’s Larry Hagman-like narrator, Texas Jim (played by Neil John Gibson).
Pic: Eoin Carey
The required human element comes in writer/director Ben Harrison’s script in the form of Mike (Phil McKee), an oil worker who has endured 15 gruelling years offshore, only to be unceremoniously turfed out of his job when the North Sea industry’s fortunes take a turn for the worse. Mike’s story, alongside verbatim accounts from survivors of the Piper Alpha tragedy, proves the compelling heart of the piece. Sub-plots, including the fate of environmental activist Camila (Itxaso Moreno), seem a little underdeveloped.
Harrison’s show does offer copious visual delights, however, from the image of an oilrig overflowing with money to aerialist Sarah Bebe Holmes’s lofty performance as the beautiful and seductive “Oil Mermaid”. Though the script and characterisation occasionally fall back on cliché (“oil is sexy” is a recurring mantra), the ambitious show nevertheless provides a timely reappraisal of our dysfunctional relationship with and overreliance on the “black gold”.
Box office: 01382 223530, to October 23. Gridiron.org.uk