Review: Arctic Oil – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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First published in The Times, Friday October 12 2018

Two Stars

It is fitting that Clare Duffy’s play should open in the week that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of catastrophic global warming unless governments, corporations and individuals take unprecedented action. Environmental activism, the fate of the planet and personal responsibility are the big themes Duffy has set out to explore here.

Clearly, the play’s subject is increasingly urgent, but Duffy’s treatment feels thin and underdeveloped. The protagonists are a mother (Jennifer Black) and her grown-up daughter (Neshla Caplan), residents of a remote Scottish island where economic fortunes have risen and fallen along with the local oil industry. While the daughter is a passionate environmentalist, dedicated to fighting for a safer future for her infant son, Mum can’t comprehend her child’s ingratitude to the industry that sustained their family and community.

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Pic: Roberto Ricciuti

Rather than dramatising the impact of complacent behaviour on places and people, the playwright settles for a staged argument that descends into melodrama when the mother imprisons her daughter in the bathroom to prevent her from embarking on a dangerous campaigning voyage. Their back-and-forth is laden with glib dialogue and the characters only fully come to life when the political argument is parked in favour of personal reminiscences.

 

 

Like the key to the bathroom door that Black’s character apparently ingests, even the basic premise is at times hard to swallow. We are asked to accept, for instance, that this woman will take extreme measures to protect her daughter while casually leaving her grandson to fend for himself in another part of the house.

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Pic: Roberto Ricciuti

The two-hander is efficiently directed by Gareth Nicholls, who also co-designs with Kevin McCallum, and burring away in the background is an eerie, insistent soundscape, created by Stephen Jones, that adds a certain urgency.

 

The claustrophobia of the setting becomes almost painful, however, giving little sense of the wider world for which Caplan’s character so passionately yearns. The piece feels like an odd choice for a main-stage production at the Traverse. Its themes are timely, certainly, but its modesty of scale and ambition limits its impact.

 

Box office: 0131 228 1404, to October 20

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