Jez Butterworth is one of Britain’s most famous and influential playwrights. Of all his repertoire, however, The Winterling is one of his least known. By no means is it an inferior script, it simply lacks the hype of works like Mojo, which won the Olivier award for best comedy 1996, or the bombast of Rylance-driven Jerusalem. This production though, is going to change all that. It could just be the best thing you see all year – and I’m not just talking about student productions.

The O’Reilly theatre has been transformed into an immersive stage; gunshots and planes rattle overhead, two chairs adorning one corner of the stage, a mangle looming ominously in the other like some mediaeval torture device. This heightens the paranoid, Pinteresque mood, whilst also evoking memories of the script’s home turf – blink for a second and you could be in the bowels of the Royal Court Theatre, Butterworth’s creative stomping ground. The audience sits tense and alert as the stage lights go up.

What follows is an intimate exposé of the dynamics that drive human relationships, the poignancy and fragility of innocence, and the revelation that even a ‘winterling’ can find absolution. I should point out that a ‘winterling’ (despite what Google would have you think) is none of the following:

a)   a make of Bavarian porcelain

b)   a Florida based Folk-Rock Band

c)    a type of early crocus

A Winterling is actually a Devonshire dialect term meaning ‘the runt of the litter’ – essentially a dejected, abused animal on its last legs. And by the end of the play, the audience certainly knows who this Winterling is – it was staring us in the face all along, as well as humanity’s innate capacity for bestial cruelty.

This production displays a masterful appreciation of the text especially given its ambiguity and ultra-minimal style on the page; Director Susannah Quirke explained, “Butterworth makes you work, but the rewards are great”. She described the play as a “thriller”, drawing on her previous experience directing ‘Rope’ to insert the claustrophobic air of menace that slowly closes in on the characters. The players themselves give memorable and polished turns, rising to the difficult task of juggling comedy and tragedy without missing a beat. 

Joe Allan’s choice of material and skillful eye for casting has reaped dividends; Leo Suter shines as Paddy, one minute showering the audience with gems like ‘poo muffins’, the next raising his hackles like a snarling dog. He and Arty Froushan give us Gangster geezers on just the right side of Guy Ritchie. And I challenge any of you not to pity David Shields’ West, as his illusions of grandeur are shattered by a smile, and a terrible ultimatum.

This production is, essentially, a masterpiece of Oxford theatre. Go and buy a ticket as soon as you can. If you don’t have the cash, take out a new loan. If you’re too far in the red, sell a relative, or yourself. I’ve already booked myself in for another performance on Friday. The money was not easy to come by.