By the entrance gates to Braziers Park there's a signpost pointing to the left to Quiet Lane, and once you're in the house I spotted a note scrawled on a blackboard saying "cows now in garden field". Yet this vision of bucolic utopia is disrupted by the hint of crime and punishment in Nikolaus Pevsner's description of the house in his Buildings of England: Oxfordshire as "late C17, remodelled in Gothic style by architect Daniel Harris, who was also keeper of Oxford Gaol. He employed convicts on his building projects. The grey-stuccoed front has an embattled tower, spiky pinnacles and a porch with a mock portcullis". Nor was this paradox the only one. Thinking to enter into the spirit of this Murder Mystery Evening, I sidled in through the mock portcullis, my trench coat concealing a Cluedoesque brass candlestick and length of lead piping, only to be disarmed by the cheery, open welcome from the residents and volunteers of the Braziers Park community – Will, Aggie and their friends and colleagues.
Braziers Park is a non-religious co-operative community dating from 1950, its website describing it as "a continuing experiment in the advantages and problems of living in a group." People thinking of beads and daisy chains and dropping out in a haze of marijuana can dream on. These 15 residents divvy up the needful tasks and work part-time at Braziers in return for bed, board and pocket money, and some of them also have jobs elsewhere. The community's pride and its problem is the Grade 2 listed building whose upkeep imposes a heavy responsibility in time and cost, together with the 55 acres of land and organic gardens. It's self-financing by means largely of venue hire, staged events and courses – Snowdrop Open Days, Tolkien Talks, Retreats, Yoga weekends, Indie Film Festival, Indoor Games evenings are a sample.
We were led into the sitting room, an oasis of comfort and warmth on a cold evening, all oak-lined walls and deep sofas and Victorian fireplace, with aperitifs and buffet-bites awaiting us, and a pianist playing a Grieg Nocturne, then a Chopin Etude. The whole interior of the place is a treat: panelling everywhere, huge oak sideboards and cupboards purpose-designed for the house in the 19th century, and sculpted stucco ceilings. The dining room alone features tall Gothic windows, creaking floorboards and blue upper walls ornamented with elaborate plaster cornices and dado rails. The kitchen is straight out of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861), gleaming in white tiles, with adjoining butler's pantry. We Sherlocks and Miss Marples then sat down to a tasty supper, wine included, of stew with meat or tofu and sage-and-onion dumplings, plus later on authentic tiramisu made by the Italian-born cook.
The raison d'être of the evening, Murder at the Playhouse, presented by the 10 actors of the Murder Most Fun group, was all of a sudden announced by an agitated Delilah, wife of the theatre director, bewailing his demise and beseeching her audience to investigate the crime. This we readily did, egged on by Delilah and her clipboard and aided by pen portraits of the suspects, all cast and crew of Pathetic Productions who, in period costume, strolled amongst us, admitting or denying our probing of their characters, motive and opportunity. Thus we heard from Alice Springs, an ex-high wire artiste in high, feathered hat, from Frank Insentts in long, grey frock coat and sepulchral voice, and from the stage doorman Artie Choke, a vehemently protesting figure in flat cap and spotted choker: "You are enamoured of the lady?" "I've never been enamelled in my life. I've had a spot or two of paint on me". We also heard from Catherine Wheel, in whose mouth butter would decline to melt, and the feisty Gail Force (played by Angela Brown, bubbling with energy as a black-and-salmon dressed gypsy with ringlets).
The tone of whodunnit melodrama mixed with humour was perfectly judged. To be picky, I might perhaps have wished for the opportunity to unmask the villain by means of step-by-step deduction rather than firing off questioning shots in the dark; and it might have been good had there been scope for moving out of just the one room. But these are details. This was quality entertainment, carefully rehearsed and slickly put together, and the feedback I sought from my competitor sleuths was 100% positive about the drama and the entire Brazier's experience.
Not the least of the evening's attractions was the cost. £20 per head all-in for nibbles, supper and wine, coffee and the elaborate murder entertainment, all provided in this unique setting by our Braziers Park hosts with such generous fellowship. If that's not the biggest bargain of the 21st century so far, then it's going to puzzle a Hercule Poirot to prove the contrary.