Whatever your feelings about the North Sea oil industry, there’s no denying the power of the sheer spectacle it creates, in the mighty drilling rigs and platforms that stand around our coasts, glittering at night like great palaces of industrial engineering. It’s the breathtaking scale of the industry, its drive, energy and hubris, that has partly inspired Grid Iron’s new show Crude, about the recent story of oil in Scotland. Scotland’s leading site-specific company has found the perfect setting for the show in a huge shed at the Port of Dundee, where a giant platform in the process of decommissioning gleams on the shoreline as the audience arrives.
Shed 36, Port of Dundee ****
Oran Mor, Glasgow ***
As a show, Crude has its problems, starting with the decision – a strange one, from a company so expert in promenade theatre – to seat the audience in a conventional theatre arrangement facing into one corner of the giant venue, so that the rest of the space becomes nothing but a dialogue-muffling echo-chamber; the spectacular initial walk down an avenue marked out in gleaming white hard hats suggests a dozen exciting ways in which the vast space could have been used to present the story’s multiple strands.
Then there is the slightly pedestrian quality of the script, which offers several intertwined oil-related stories, along with a factual narrative distractingly presented by an untrustworthy-looking caricature of a Texas oil man; almost all of this material has already been better covered in Scottish theatre, from The Cheviot The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, to Liz Lochhead’s stunning double monologue Quelques Fleurs. And finally, there are aspects of the staging – the distance between the audience and the actors on Becky Minto’s huge platform-like set, or the appearance of aerialist Sarah Bebe Holmes as a symbolic “oil mermaid” – that work less well than they should.
Yet for all that, Crude is a show so timely in its theme, and so ambitious in scale, that it remains an unforgettable experience.
Phil McKee and Kirsty Stuart deliver fine performances as oil man Mike and his discontented wife, Tunji Lucas is impressive as Niger Delta freedom fighter Joel. And the verbatim evidence from the Piper Alpha disaster inquiry, interspersed through the text, is heartbreakingly powerful; in a show remarkable for its bold acknowledgment of both the destructive power of oil, and its huge, seductive appeal, as an energy source powerful enough to transform lives and nations, and to rebuild a whole world in its own gleaming image.
Morna Pearson’s Walking On Walls – the latest Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime show at Oran Mor and the Traverse –is a similarly fascinating and flawed piece of work, although without Crude’s breathtaking scale. As the lights go up, a young woman is standing over a man bound and gagged on an office chair; she is Claire, a self-appointed vigilante, and he is Fraser, whom she has apprehended for some offence that is at first unnamed.
The early part of the play is therefore a shade problematic, as Claire bangs on about her vigilante way of life for a good 15 minutes without explaining why she has arrested Fraser; it begins to seem as though we are in some situationist world where the reason doesn’t matter. Then she whips off Fraser’s gag, and a rather different play begins, a more psychologically realistic story of a girl bullied beyond endurance during her schooldays, who has returned to settle the score. Helen McKay and Andy Clark turn in a striking and thoughtful pair of performances, in Rosie Kellagher’s vivid production. The play ends as finely poised as it begins, in a precise and angry tale of small town life gone wrong.
Crude until 23 October; Walking On Walls at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 18-22 October.