Part of the Picture
In July 1988, explosions and fire at the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea killed one hundred and sixty seven workers. Most of the bodies of those killed were never recovered.
Tom Cooper’s powerful and poetic play Part of the Picture takes us to the year before that event when a young woman artist (Charlaye Blair) had persuaded the oil company to let her sketch pictures of those who worked on the rig. It became a unique visual record that can currently be seen at the National Museum of Scotland till 5 November.
The artist graduated in Aberdeen and from very early on had been interested in drawing working people.
We see her requests to visit an oil rig being repeatedly turned down till at a meeting with an English manager she is given permission. She would finally be able to see those who “live, eat and sleep in metal containers.”
The show recreates her slightly unsettling helicopter journey to the rig that emphasises its isolation.
As the only woman on Piper Alpha, she is an intriguing figure to the workers, and we get to know something of two of them.
There is Jim (Ross McKinnon), a family man who misses his kids, and Robbie, (Brian James O’Sullivan) who previously worked selling ice cream and being a DJ. It wasn’t the kind of work he wanted but he decided to join the rigs for the money. They are both warm and engaging characters, whom we hope will not be among the dead of 1988.
Most of the story is spoken directly to the audience, with occasional dialogue between the characters.
A strong cast of three gives a fine, entertaining and well-paced performance. A number of songs add to the emotional pull of the play.
After the disaster, a representative of Occidental Petroleum which operated Piper Alpha tries to get the artist not to exhibit her pictures. They also refuse to contribute to a publicly commissioned memorial to those who died.
The government’s Cullen inquiry judged that the company “had used inadequate maintenance and safety procedures.” However there were “no charges, no accountability.”
Not long after the disaster, Occidental sold off its interest for some £640 million and headed off to what were believed to be better prospects in the Middle East.
Things “are different now” a worker at the end of the show tells us. There are “lots of women here now” and “lots more health and safety”, “but recently they are trying to get more for less. Corners are being cut” and fear of losing your job means you don’t report it.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna