Arctic Oil

Oct 18 2018 | By More

★★☆☆☆   Feeble 

Traverse Theatre: Sat 6 – Sat 20 Oct 2018
Review by Thom Dibdin

Great forces of vital importance are brought into a claustrophobic setting in Clare Duffy’s new two-hander, Arctic Oil, which is the main Autumn production at the Traverse, running to Saturday 20 October.

But while the modern bathroom of a remote Shetland island home is as valid a place as any to reflect on the social forces which drive the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources, in the week when scientists put the planet on last warning, this all feels futile and far too trivial.

Neshla Caplan with Jennifer Black. Pic: Roberto Ricciuti

Karen and her daughter Ella are just putting the nappies away before Ella sets off for her first weekend away from her two year-old son. But Karen knows more about environmental activist Ella’s plans than she is letting on, and soon she has put a stop to them all…

The ensuing hour covers plenty of ground as Jennifer Black’s somewhat furtive, over-protective Karen and Neshla Caplan’s increasingly desperate Ella circle round each other in the attempt to find common cause.

Writer Clare Duffy brings in clever ideas of memory and how those things you dreamed of doing, but never dared do, become part of your own myth about yourself. Indeed, it would be tempting to think that the whole scenario depicts a piece of wishful thinking on Karen’s part.

If only. In reality, it just revolves around where you draw the line between being protective and over-protective. Anyone who, as a teenager, disobeyed their parents to put themselves in a position of mild peril (perceived by the parents as wild danger) and was found out will recognise the arguments.

background noise

Issues of saving the planet come up, and there is the hint that the world has been gaslit by a big oil companies, in the same way that Karen might have been gaslit by her dead husband. But they feel like a background noise to the mother/daughter debate.

Jennifer Black & Neshla Caplan in Arctic Oil by Clare Duffy Traverse 2018 Image Roberto Ricciuti.jpg

Jennifer Black and Neshla Caplan. Pic: Roberto Ricciuti

In fact, it is much better when it is trying to examine that transition from being dependant to being responsible; the tipping point when a child discovers that they have to take responsibility not just for their own actions, but for their parents as well.

Director Gareth Nicholls brings his own visual shocks to the production, demonstrating that he really is, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the same person whose sharpness of attack gave David Ireland’s Ulster American much of its power.

Black and Caplan’s performances do inject a certain level of honesty to the production, but neither character is ever particularly believable – and you certainly never begin to worry for the baby that is supposedly somewhere else in the house.

And when it twists round to a surprise ending, the only real surprise is how trite and utterly condescending to its audience the twist is.

Stephen Jones’ abstract sound design just feels laboured and while the set, designed by Nichols with Kevin McCallum, is functional enough, there are elements about it that feel at odds with what is happening on stage.

The Traverse brands itself a powerhouse of new writing. Its offerings during this year’s fringe indicate that this is still true. But this profoundly underwhelming production indicates that it is not always the case.

Running time 1 hour (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Saturday 6 (preview) – Saturday 20 October 2018
Daily, not Sun, Mon, at 7.30pm.
Tickets: Click here to buy online.

The script is available on Amazon. Click image for details:


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  1. Michael Mulligan says:

    The mother in this play was surely called Margaret, not Karen?

    • Thom Dibdin says:

      Thanks Michael,
      That’s a tricky one. I don’t think she was named on stage – correct me if I am wrong.
      The Traverse website does call her “Margret”. However, while she is not named in the body of the published script, she is called “Karen” in the blurb on the back.