On the very day that Prof Alexis Jay appeared before a House of Commons select committee answering questions about the problems of the huge child sexual abuse enquiry, Oxford Theatre Guild staged its own investigation into the subject - or more properly that of David Eldridge's stage adaption of the screenplay for the 1998 Danish film Festen (= The Celebration).
The basement atrium of the Maths Institute has been turned into the dining room of the wealthy Helge who is marking his 60th birthday by summoning family and friends for a weekend of nostalgia and mutual back-slapping. The three children of the complacent Helge and his complaisant wife Else are all in attendance, the air of jollity already a little curdled by the vaguely threatening intro music that rises to a worrying crescendo. And upheaval is just at hand. Younger son Michael has turned up as a virtual gatecrasher, his past behaviour rendering him all but persona non grata, and he's in a state of apparently chronic boiling rage - with the caterers, his wife and the world at large. By now the 50-strong audience is bolt upright, and when elder son Christian, kicking off the speeches, switches from family jokes to drop casually a hand grenade into the lobster bisque, you can all but cut the tension in the playing space with an oyster knife.
I say 'playing space', and with what cunning and attention to detail is it conceived by directors Alexandra Coke and Justine Malone, together with set designers Jacqui Lewis and Natasha Kennedy. We're in a John Lewis display home, a cantilevered, polygonal glass roof topping flanking glass cabinets, all colour drained from the scene by the brilliantly-lit, stark black-and-white, from the table to the costumes and on down to the very condiments.
Nor has the imagination of the directors ended there: they've conceived the concept of trapping players and audience in a cocoon of complicit voyeurism as they and we, party guests all, witness the unmasking of a monstrous paterfamilias. As the smug, reptilian Helge, Tom Hare Duke cleverly maintains quite an anodyne presence, often gently smiling, with just a couple of outbursts - the first of these revealing the inky heart of darkness within him as, admitting the fact of his crimes, he mutters:
"It was all you were good for!"
The tone of the play oscillates disconcertingly between near farce and despair. As I looked around me while the secrets slipped out before us, some of my fellow audience members were laughing hard while simultaneously their neighbours sat stony-faced. One of the most daring moments comes at the start of Act II; there's a long, long silence as the guests tackle their main course, while we and they await in extreme nervousness the next detonation. Less fearless directing of the scene would have truncated that silence.
The ensemble acting of the company is functioning at a level as near to that of professional theatre as makes no odds. The seemingly perpetual state of ungoverned anger of Simon Bellamy's Michael perhaps wanted for a bit of variation in Act 1, but his reaction acting was always first-class, his face reddening and paleing apparently at will, and his rage actually underwent a degree of diminuendo in Act II that was very impressive. Robert Cole gave Christian a twitchy, haunted presence, and Tracey Rimell as the daughter Helene was pitch-perfect between pathos and righteousness as she finally confronted her father, in her fury reducing a large cream cake to pulp. Barbara Denton brought some light relief to the darkness with her appealingly dotty grandmother, and I also noted Nancy White in a small part but with stage presence as the head waitress, once bearing away a set of thrown car keys as if they were red-hot.
I wonder when Oxford theatre last offered psycho-drama as glitteringly, startlingly pure as this. Just terrific!