The Pillowman is a play that I’ve heard mentioned throughout my theatrical career, yet the copy on my shelf has never been opened and I have never managed to get to a production. So it was with high expectations and no shortage of excitement that I headed to the beautiful South Hill Park to see Luke Burton’s Studio Theatre Company take on Martin McDonagh’s hugely popular play.

Katurian, played here by Burton (taking the lead, producing and directing – a dangerous combination), is an author arrested by two detectives who believe that some of his short story writing directly resembles the gruesome details of two recent child murders. What follows is a disturbing and harrowing interrogation of Katurian and his brother, Michal (Damian Thomas).

The genius of The Pillowman is in McDonagh’s flawless dialogue: astonishingly funny in places, and hugely graphic and upsetting in others. The cast certainly have a good bash at it, but the only actor who comes close to the appropriate comic timing and tone demanded is Anthony Flemming as Detective Tupolski.

The play is intersected with several sections of monologue and story-telling between the intense interrogation scenes, and McDonagh writes them to be highly visual and uncomfortable to watch. Burton’s interpretation, however, forces the production to rely solely on the text, with Katurian’s stories quite literally read to the audience with no ensemble performers or visual excitement at all. Despite the best efforts of the actors, this ends up feeling bland, and the lack of stylistic switch between ‘dialogue’ and ‘storytelling’ makes the production seem lazy and unimaginative, leaving the audience a little lost on more than one occasion as to what was real and what was not.

That said, simplicity is sometimes used to good effect here, particularly in the scenes with the detectives, where the stark setting heightens the mood. But overall everything feels static and very, very slow. Flemming’s performance, and that of Alex Harvey-Brown as Tupolski’s sadistic deputy, Ariel (pronounced differently by every actor, and with no clear nod to the Shakespearean reference), are relatively strong, but feel very confined in scope by the direction. Burton and Thomas work hard as the two brothers, but the performances feel sadly underdeveloped and thus underwhelming.

There are moments of power and intensity that took my breath away, and some truly horrifying sections, but for me the joy was in the play, not the production.

The Pillowman is playing at the South Hill Park Studio Theatre until 30 November. For more information see the South Hill Park website.