American newspapers are hot on advisories: “Severed fingers and heads, electric drills, barbed wire and premature burial all figure prominently,” warned the New York Times when it reviewed Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman.

The storyline concerns Katurian, who is a writer of disturbing short stories that sometimes include violence against children. When some real child murders start to resemble his stories, he is arrested and tossed into an interrogation cell — and as Katurian lives in a totalitarian state, the interrogation methods may be brutal. It could also be the case that Katurian has nothing whatsoever to do with the murders, and the authorities are simply looking for an excuse to silence a writer whose work they do not like.

In this Oxford University student production, director Thomas Bailey and designer Joel Scott-Halkes exploit the full width of the Playhouse stage, so the police cell is spacious. This works well: the expansive empty floor area around him enhances the feeling that Katurian has been forcibly isolated from the outside world.

“Why didn’t you take the blindfold off?” jeers detective Tupolski (Dominic Applewhite). “That’s stupid.” Here director Bailey springs a surprise: Katurian’s head may be covered with a hood, but it’s immediately obvious that “he” is in fact a ”she” (Claire Bowman). But in what he calls “gender-blind casting”, Bailey ignores what could have been a very interesting gender switch: Tupolski’s constant swearing would be even more offensive if spat out at a girl. Similarly with Tupolski’s sidekick Ariel (Jonathan Purkiss): his sud-den outbursts of physical violence (no severed fingers or electric drills in this production) would arguably be even worse if committed against a woman.

Yet Katurian is always referred to as “he”, as is his mentally retarded “brother” Michal (Emma D’Arcy), who is imprisoned in an adjoining cell. However, none of this affects the acting, which is first-rate throughout. Bowman and D’Arcy’s long scene charting the explosive, changing relationship between the brothers is riveting; Apple-white and Purkiss expertly expose the inner conflicts that drive Tupolski and Ariel.

Does fictional violence beget real-life violence, play-wright McDonagh asks in The Pillowman. It’s an age-old question, and very wisely this production leaves you to think about that for yourself.

The Pillowman
Oxford Playhouse
Until Saturday
Tickets: 01865 305305