When did this play about Oxford undergrads turn into a chilling murder mystery? The first act starts off in a college room: two friends are bantering about Formal Hall, Philosophy tutorials, and a pub crawl last Friday night. The conversation, as well as the setting, is painfully familiar. The character’s room is furnished with a shapeless armchair and a gaudy nylon rug; the bed is unmade, and the desk is covered in papers in disarray. It feels like home. Thanks to the intimate space of Burton Taylor Studio, with the audience sitting face to face with the actors, there is no sense of narrative distance. We are here, at Oxford, looking at two girls and a guy created in our image.
Now, all good thrillers start with a sense of the familiar that we want to cling to, but that gets violently disturbed. And the macabre events of Isobel’s plot do come with a blow. But the question is: is our surprise that of the delighted horror fan in awe of the villain’s cunning, or is it a one of disbelief? Starting off by mocking university life, then adopting themes from the detective novels that one of the characters reads, the play is mildly ironic on so many levels that it is unclear how seriously we should take all this. Is it intended to be a dark play about the vanity of spoilt Oxford kids, a moral exploration of the ‘banality of evil’? Or is it a self-referential piece exploring our everyday lives and our high- and pop-culture obsessions? The game of catching cues from Agatha Christie, Stephen King, and The Shining seemed to preclude dwelling on the ethical issues behind a horrible crime.
But the answer, really, is that you could take it either way. Isobel leaves you in a place where you want to laugh, amused by the absurdity of last century’s crime stories coming to life in today’s Oxford. But at the same time, laughter feels uncomfortable; it is mixed with some genuine guilt and unease. The characters’ words seem at times to be borrowed and inauthentic (“I led her to believe that we were both invincible. In fact, it was just me,” Jack says, eager to come off as the antihero). And then at once, Jack is no longer striking a pose. In the monologue in which he remembers a childhood accident, he is not pretending; he is speaking his true heart, and therein lies horror.
The play’s great surprise ending made me forget all scepticism. Walking home from this late-night show, I caught myself looking anxiously back, scared of my own shadow. Then I knew that Isobel had done a great job. A literary game turned deadly serious, the play manages to catch you off-guard and give you the chills. You could take it as just a game, as a joke on the way we Oxonians tend to take ourselves and literature too seriously. Or you could let go of the critical stance and let yourself be very scared.
Isobel is showing at the Burton-Taylor studio until Saturday 27th October, 9.30pm. Tickets are £6