Trueman and the Arsonists – Roundhouse, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Simon Stephens, based on the play by Max Frisch

Music and Lyrics: Chris Thorpe

Director: Abigail Graham

Max Frisch’s 1958 play Biedermann und die Brandstifter has been translated several times into English, usually under the titles of The Fire Raisers or The Arsonists. In all cases, the stark moral of the play has been clear: it is easy to be drawn into complicity with heinous crimes.

Simon Stephens’s new translation, Trueman and the Arsonists, retains most of the original’s structure and themes while giving the characters Anglicised names. Adam Owers’ Trueman is a businessman with black-and-white, “hang-’em-and-flog-’em”-style views about the mysterious arsonists who have been setting blazes throughout the city. But when a homeless man, Smith (Tommy Oldroyd) turns up uninvited, Trueman finds himself manipulated into inviting the mysterious stranger to stay. What is intended to be a single night turns into Smith inviting colleague Molly (Angela Jones) to join him, and together pair amass large barrels of petrol in Trueman’s attic.

The action in Frisch’s original is interspersed with a Greek chorus of firefighters commenting on the actions both within the house and in the larger city. This new adaptation replaces them with songs by Chris Thorpe, delivered in shouty punk style by the cast, led by guitarist and singer Aaron Douglas and drummer Lucy Yates (also called upon to provide sound effects throughout). While Yates in particular impresses, the songs themselves add little.

The trick to making Frisch’s absurdist allegory work is that it must convince us that, were we in Trueman’s shoes, we would end up doing the same thing. And this is where Stephens’s adaptation, under the directorial gaze of Abigail Graham, first falters. While it is easy to imagine the bombastic Smith barrelling through anybody’s life, it is the escalation of matters that struggles here.

As Trueman, Owers struggles with a role where neither writing nor direction gives much help in portraying a man whose pompous self-belief that he could never be tricked could be challenged. Instead, he and his wife Bobsy (Nadine Ivy Barr) come across as desperate to conform to a notion of English hospitality, only for such charity to literally blow up in their faces.

It all adds up to a starkly different moral to Frisch’s original – that if you trust people in need, any fearmongering about those you are assisting will come to be true. In a world that sees rising attacks on refugees, and where civilians are being attacked because of the actions of terrorists within, this hopefully unintentional spin on Biedermann und die Brandstifter’s original theme sits uneasily.

Perhaps it is thankful, then, that this is not the sort of production that will remain in one’s thoughts long afterwards. The chorus’s final song starts with the line “Well, what was the point of that?” Unwittingly, that sums up the whole play.

Continues until 8 November 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Muddled morality tale

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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