@ Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 6 Feb 2016

The Pillowman, presented by Edinburgh University Theatre Company and directed by Emily Aboud, is a play that takes a dark journey through the power of stories. Katurian Katurian (he explains that he had interesting parents) is a writer who is taken in for questioning by police in a totalitarian state. He is brought in because a series of gristly child murders closely resemble the torture and abuse of children in Katurian’s own stories.

The officers interrogating him are Tupolski and Ariel played by Paddy Echlin and Esmee Cook. They do a brilliant job of playing the brutish and often ridiculous police officers. Throughout the production both the police and Katurian read out some of his stories and they are extremely dark. The play itself is also very dark – weaving these stories through the plot and touching on the abuse of children in many forms and the effects of this on adulthood. Katurian’s stories read like bleak fairy tales… but are they merely fantasy or is there more to these horrifying tales?

On paper, the play doesn’t sound as though it would be a barrel of laughs. This production, however, is surprisingly full of comedy. Exchanges between the two police officers are notably funny, but almost every character gets a comic moment. They brilliantly contrast the stark horrors of child abuse, torture and murder with these expertly timed blackly comic moments, without compromising the seriousness of the subject matter.

What’s really interesting about this production is its focus on the power of stories. The play is very dialogue heavy and comes in at almost three hours but the stories – whether readings of Katurian’s own morbid tales or accounts of the characters own lives – are immensely captivating and highlight the simple pleasure in listening to a well-told tale. The relationships between the characters are just as fascinating. Almost all of the characters flit between telling the truth and lying, whether to each other or to themselves, and the dynamics between them all as they try to figure out who they can trust is very watchable.

This might be an amateur production of Martin McDonagh‘s play, but everything about it feels highly professional. All actors expertly embody their roles to create a compelling drama. Special mention must be given to the actor playing the central role of Katurian – Scott Meenan. He is our guide through the performance, the one for whom we feel sympathy. We share in the frustrations of his situation. The role is played by Meenan with the utmost professionalism and his performance is beautifully nuanced, never straying into melodrama despite the tough demands of the script. His performance is intensely moving.

Edinburgh University Theatre Company’s production is a truly great ensemble production with some standout performances. The tough subject matter is handled expertly by the cast and although you leave the theatre feeling a little chilled by the dark elements of the plot, the beautiful performances and blackly comic moments mean you also feel strangely uplifted.