Crude: An Exploration of Oil

Edinburgh-based Grid Iron Theatre Company has long specialised in creating immersive, site-specific theatre. On this occasion, Crude is housed in the corner of one of the vast Sheds in the Port of Dundee, to which the audience travels by coach, on the way passing within sight of three nearby-stationed oil platforms. It’s not quite the same as being helicoptered out to a North Sea platform, but it leaves the audience sufficiently out of their usual comfort zone to ensure that even the opening of the Shed’s shuttered entrance has some impact. As we’re led to our seats along a wide path marked out by seemingly hundreds of white safety hats, towards a stage of scaffold behind which huge screens project an ever-increasing number of “Barrels Of Oil Extracted Since 7.55PM Today”, it’s looks as if something special is definitely about to start.

There’s no doubt that Crude is technically impressive: Paul Claydon’s lighting and the throbbing music/sound design by Pippa Murphy are on occasions as startling as the graphics designed by Lewis den Hertog.

Except, it never quite gels; the set—full of scaffolding, pipes and chains—is arguably too large for any Scottish theatre and yet still feels dwarfed within the venue. So, as a result, do most of the performances—not even Neil John Gibson’s deliberately larger-than-life Texan, who provides us with the introductory info-dump about the political and economic history of the Oil Industry, feels believably human.

Given the scale of the oil industry, and its global influence, writer/director Ben Harrison creates his “Exploration of Oil” out of a web of entwined personal stories. So we meet the increasingly disgruntled North Sea worker slowly losing any emotional connection with his wife and daughter, the Nigerian desperately fighting against the environmental devastation caused by the foreign oil companies cutting costs in the Niger Delta, the environmental campaigner who ends up arrested in Russia, and the female oil company executive who won’t even argue with environmentalists unless they’re Vegans. In this vast echoing shed, however, these stories appear all too small and indistinct; that may well be the intention, but on occasions the sound balance makes it difficult to understand what was being said, which hardly helps get the message across. The most emotionally effective strand, ironically enough, is a series of verbatim quotes from survivors of the Piper Alpha disaster—in which 167 men were killed. These are spoken by successive members of the cast, repeating what they hear on a set of headphones, while holding a white protective helmet. Immediately, there’s a new significance to those helmets we passed on our way to our seats.

There’s no doubt that Crude is technically impressive: Paul Claydon’s lighting and the throbbing music/sound design by Pippa Murphy are on occasions as startling as the graphics designed by Lewis den Hertog. Yet, while the cast’s performances are solid enough, there’s an unfortunate chill (both physical and theatrical) created by the venue which only Tunji Lucas, as Nigerian fighter Joel, manages to overcome, bringing a real sense of humanity and passion to his character. Crude is undoubtedly an interesting theatrical experiment that’s definitely worth experiencing, but it’s not always “interesting” for the best of reasons. 

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

A new play from Scotland’s site-specific theatre specialists Grid Iron which investigates the most controversial industry in Scotland – oil.

Focusing on the lives of offshore workers and the choices they make to work on the industrial islands of the North Sea, Crude also travels to the Niger Delta and the Arctic Circle to look at the global impact of oil production and its human and ecological cost.

Crude traces not only the history of oil but also our huge, addicted reliance on the by-products of black gold: our cars, our aeroplanes, our plastics that surround and almost literally wrap everything we do.

Crude: an exploration of oil. Rooted in the local. Encompassing the global.