The relentless drive for economic growth and progress, fuelled by energy, is accelerating so fast that by all accounts we'll be mining for nuclear materials on the moon before too long.

But it's oil that's at the heart of Ella Hickson's play, a sweeping family drama that charts the growth of the oil industry – and our increasingly deadly reliance on it – through its influence on May (Anne-Marie Duff) and her descendants.

The first half-hour is the best, with a bickering family shivering through a Cornish winter in 1889, where having sex appears to be the only way to get properly warm. Matriarch Ma Singer (Ellie Haddington) keeps everyone on their toes, handing out jobs like bashing ice off the troughs, chopping wood, plucking a smelly old chicken, and so forth, and with the scene lit entirely by candlelight it creates a compelling sense of how miraculous the arrival of oil must have seemed.

Duff is bright and brilliant as ever as hot-blooded, rebellious May, whose feverish yearning for her husband keeps the rest of the family awake at night.

There are flashes of humour peppered throughout, with some pin-sharp exchanges between May and her sassy daughter Amy, whose mix of charm and youthful bravado is beautifully played by Yolanda Kettle.

For British arrogance and caddishness, it would be hard to beat Patrick Kennedy's dashing appearance as the rotter Officer Samuel in 1908 Tehran, while Nabil Elouahabi settles a few scores further down the years in 1970 as smooth-talking, ruthless Mr Farouk.

However the play's second half changes pace and direction so dramatically that it feels like a different piece altogether, ramping up the comedy rather obviously by dressing mother and daughter in fat suits, and channeling Justin Bieber.

Carrie Cracknell has a wonderful cast to work with, and the fluidity of her direction brings bursts of energy and some really gripping scenes, backed by Lucy Carter's lighting and Peter Rice's exciting sound design. But while this play offers some great insights into a mother-daughter relationship, and sheds some light on the early days of British oil exploitation in Iran, it sits rather uncertainly between family drama and political narrative, without the two merging quite as seamlessly as they might.

And at a time when respect for women is being eroded so publicly by at least one major political figure, it's rather disheartening to find the message May eventually passes on to her daughter in the mid-21st century suggests you can be free, be independent, and write your own story by all means, but be prepared to be fat, lonely and abandoned in the end.

If that's progress, well, perhaps it really is time to slow things down.

Oil runs at the Almeida until 26 November.