If you like your thoughts provoked, with time to reflect on them afterwards with an engaging companion, then The Bear is a fine night out.
It's a short play, devised by members of the Improbable theatre company. Angela Clerkin stars, Lee Simpson directs, and the idea comes from a short story they wrote together. One other performer shares the stage: Guy Dartnell, whose versatility is one of several high points of the performance.
The Bear evokes film noir as it explores a shadowy weave of myth and mystery. There's murder at the heart of it all, but is the accused guilty, or is his outlandish claim that 'it was the bear' actually supported by evidence?
As our heroine Angela, a humble solicitor's clerk, steps outside her brief to pursue lines of enquiry ignored by official investigators, she finds herself unearthing long-buried pains and unexpressed anger. And then, the bear comes for her, too.
It's a neat and engaging exploration of themes that range from racism and The Troubles in Northern Ireland, to gender politics and the shamanic journey that is our quest to know ourselves. But don't panic, it's funny, exciting, moving and tense.
Guy Dartnell darts effortlessly between the roles of defeated defendant, ambitious lawyer, reformed addict and larger-than-life Aunt, with a quick splash of Tom Waits-style blues somewhere in between. Angela Clerkin slips in and out of character without missing a beat as she tells us the story, and then acts out the key scenes.
For all its rich themes, some of them intensely dark, there's a deliberate, quaint charm about The Bear that keeps you warmly engaged. The success of the production owes much to the design team - set, lights and sound - who have framed the story in a simple, adaptable set that serves the pace of the piece well. A word too for Rebecca Harris, whose narration adds the authentic American twang. And then, of course, there's the bear...
The Bear is on tour, and this was its one night in Oxford, but Reading isn't far (South Street, May 8) and nor is Newbury (Corn Exchange, May 9). Make the effort: it's a journey with a fulfilling climax.