Oxford Playhouse, 27.01-02.02.05

Pillowman by Martin McDonagh is an eerie horror story, its horror enhanced by unsettling, sharp comedy. The plot revolves around Katurian, played by Lee Ingleby, a young author of many unpublished stories. They are of varying quality, but many have dark themes of murder and abuse of young children. He is in a police station being interrogated; at the start of the play he, and the audience do not know what the crimes are.

We learn about Katurian's mentally disturbed brother Michael, and the horrific childhood they lived. It turns out there have been a series of murders that appear to recreate the unique and unpleasant deaths Katurian has written about. Since the stories remain unpublished, and Katurian has only ever read them to Michael, we realise that they must have been carried out by one or both of the brothers.

It transpires that the brothers had horrifically cruel parents, their actions directly influencing the minds and attitudes of the young men.

So far so tragic, then.

What elevates this from a mere dark play about childhood abuse and destroyed lives is the blend of comedy and horror, the unreal world the play is set in, and the sinister re-enactments of past events.

The play isn't set in the world quite as we know it; the cops are corrupt, it's a totalitarian state where instant justice is apparently permissible. By denying the audience a firm hold on reality, the horror and confusion is sharpened. Likewise, the comedy does not provide much comfort. The gags are strong, coming from an excellent script and good timing, but they come between moments of terror and misery, and our laughter is tainted by guilt and shock.

The excellent set is the interrogation cells in the police station, dark and uncomfortable. Brutal flashbacks are staged in the background in a colourful fairytale style, a further twist of normality to confound the audience. All characters are played well, the good cop/bad cop routine created by Jim Norton and Ewan Stewart being particularly enjoyable. Both unpredictable characters veer from savageness to hints of compassion, along with various surreal anecdotes.

The outcome of this mix of ingredients is an intriguing, disturbing and thoroughly entertaining play.

Andy Cotgreave