Anyone with a passing interest in Oxford student drama will have noticed the recent trend of shows interested in making a political statement. These might be plays that deal with politics directly. Or they might be plays that, in the style, form and vision of their production, provoke a new way of understanding a text. Either way, more and more often, questions are being asked.

Speaking to Emma Howlett, director of NSFW, I am told confidently that this should be the primary job of theatre. Howlett says she doesn’t ever want the audience to leave anything she has worked on without ‘new questions about their reality’. That is, in her mind, ‘where you start’ with any script – by thinking first about ‘what you want to say’. It is a creative’s job to be ‘socially aware’, although Howlett is in no rush to deny that making political art is, as the trend has shown, also fairly ‘commercially aware’. This is not only about making what you think the world needs but, riding the zeitgeist, also about making what they want.

Following off the back of the experimental feminist play Revolt. She Said Revolt Again which Howlett directed at the Pilch last term, NSFW puts gender under the lens, to various and increasingly uncomfortable degrees. Taking place across three short acts, the play shows three different scenarios within the world of journalism and publishing, each skewering the toxic workings of patriarchy. The extract I was shown on Monday evening comes from the central section and exposes the boardroom culture of a top lads-mag. Tom Mackie plays a father whose underage daughter finds her breasts bared inside the publication. Parochial, paternalistic, and patronising, Cameron Spain is Aidan, the chief exec who, oozing sleaze and entitlement, wishes to stop a lawsuit. The situation is depressing to say the least and not even Mackie’s desperate father is free from Kirkwood’s satirical wrath. He too is mired in his own internalized misogyny and his desire for his daughter to succeed comes across as equally self-serving, a defense of an already-wounded masculinity.

Howlett’s direction, in a thrust orientation which makes the most of the intimacy of the Pilch, is light-handed and convincing. In conversation, she tells me she intended to take an ‘uber natural’ approach’ which allowed actors to alter their staging according to their instinct. The result is clear in the sense of naturalism effected and the ease with which the actors seem to be able to realize the complex politics of the language. Of course, without hearing it first one would never actually guess at the their freedom because it makes itself manifest primarily through creating a greater sense of control, as paradoxical as such a statement may sound.

The performances in the show are very solid. Tom Mackie, despite the age gap between actor and character, is particularly applaudable for so carefully evoking the pathetic desperation of a man unable to stick to his convictions. I was also impressed by Lucy McIlgorm as Charlotte, Aidan’s secretary. She is given very few lines, providing instead a silent commentary on what is taking place: reacting to everything that is said and quietly resisting the menial tasks meted out to her. McIlgorm makes a powerful presence onstage and cannot be ignored despite her relative lack of words.

I am also interested to ask Howlett and the cast what they think about the figure of Charlotte. Is it problematic that in a play about the control that men have over female voices and bodies, one of the female characters is shown with so little power? There seems to be no counter-discourse, no evidence of possible change or of women wanting to be emancipated from the sexist, capitalist structures that so clearly debase them. This is, however, one of the strengths of the play in the eyes of the company. In this, the British centenary of women’s rights, Kirkwood refuses to construct a virtuous paragon of femininity. She shows the complicity we all have in the system, presents us the horror of what we have all internalized, regardless of gender identity. The debate is far complex and, it seems, far more worrying. It is certainly a provocative move.

NSFW is part-drama, part-satire. The scene I am shown is a horror-show of chauvinism but I am told that other moments will have the audience ‘dying with laughter’, even if only seconds later they will want to ‘rip that laughter out of [their] mouth’. Howlett is also clearly thrilled to show me her special innovation – a bookend to the play which I won’t give away but which clarifies her own reasons for putting on the show and clearly calls spectators to action. I wonder how the whole thing is going to fit together. Howlett clearly has ambition and relishes in her team’s creative abilities: the rehearsal environment is infectiously keen. From the perspective of a previewer, there is still much I don’t know but her desire to pull something special off is hard not to be excited about. My fingers are crossed and I’m ready to lean in.