Review: OIL (ARC)

Picture of Bahareh Yaghari and Samantha Brown in OILOIL is “even more timely than when it was originally published.”

***NOTE: The rest of run has been cancelled to respect social-distancing requests around COVID -19

ARC celebrates its 20th anniversary with the Canadian premiere of OIL by British playwright Ella Hickson, directed by Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Christopher Stanton.  OIL tells a 150-plus-year-old story of the fossil fuel industry as it changes around a mother and daughter.

OIL tells the story of a mother, May (Bahareh Yaraghi), and her daughter Amy (Samantha Brown). The play follows their relationship over five time-periods and locations. All told, the story takes us from England to the Middle East over 150 years of history – from the advent of the fossil fuel industry to an imagined post-petroleum world.

In addition to revolving around the brutally extractive (read: Imperialistic) role of England in the 20th and 21st century fossil fuel industry, the play also touches on: misogyny; white feminism; the tension between freedom and familial obligation; and the valuing of white, western lives over others. Hickson’s script does a brilliant job of capturing the many layers of our society’s entanglement with the fossil fuel industry, and I believe ARC did an equally brilliant job of bringing it to life.

At the centre of the play are the performances by Yaraghi and Brown, who captivatingly showcase the tumultuous relationship between mother and daughter. As someone who has an intensely close – albeit at times tense and rocky – with their own mother, there were many times their performances quite resonated with me. Of note, I can relate to being at odds with my mother due to our occasional divergent views of the world.

In addition to Yaraghi and Brown, however, this show was certainly held together by the ensemble cast. Of note are the actors who played the same (or similar) characters who, like May and Amy, appeared in different times and places. I especially enjoyed the performances by Nabil Traboulsi, Ryan Hollyman, and Courtenay Stevens. I felt like they were able to retain their characters’ core traits while weaving through different time periods.

It should be noted, of course, that Armour-Ostroff’s and Stanton’s direction brought out all these performances and the design team supported the whole thing. It felt like every moment of stage direction had a clear intention behind it, and all the relationships were fleshed out in the rehearsal process.

The lighting, sound, set, costumes, and projections (Nick Blais, Maddie Bautista, Jackie Chau, Melissa Joakim, respectively), were all simple and effective, helping to make each time-period more three dimensional. I also believe these design elements weaved together a cohesive aesthetic for this show – not an easy task considering how many time-periods they had to do this for! Simply put, the direction and design pulled off a challenging feat with this show.

If there is one element to this show that left me wanting, it was the transitions between scenes. Each transition features a pre-recorded spoken-word piece, along with music and a projected video. All these elements work well to weave the story together. On the other hand, the actual moving of set pieces felt a bit clunky and rushed, often distracting me from the other design components of each transition.

I can appreciate why they were so hurried, seeing as the play had to get through so many drastic set changes in a short amount of time. On the other hand, I’m a big fan of transitions in which the characters are also still developing their personal stories through their physical movements, and felt like I missed those in this play.

My issues with the scene transitions are a relatively minor consideration. I believe this production of OIL is excellent. ARC met the challenge of such an ambitious play with remarkable creative vision.

OIL is even more timely than when it was originally published (2016), and ARC ensures to bring the play to a Canadian context. OIL brings to light the complex layers of our fossil fuel-dependent world, reiterating why we must desperately transition away from it.


  •  OIL is on until March 21 at Geary Lane (360 Geary Ave) (***NOTE: The rest of run has been cancelled to respect social-distancing requests around COVID -19)
  • Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30pm with one 2:00pm matinee on March 8
  • Tickets are $30  with a limited number of $20 “First in Line” tickets. General admission seating.
  • Tickets are available online and at the door
  • A haze effect is used throughout the show

Photo of Bahareh Yaghari and Samantha Brown by Nicholas Porteous