Review by Harry Bower
If you didn’t know that Trueman and the Arsonists was written in 1953 you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a new piece of theatre, so current are its themes of extremism, morality, and being won over by evil. Without giving away this author’s politics, it’s not hard to see why a restaging of Max Frisch’s classic might be perfectly timed, following the right-wing populist governments of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and many others around the World. Simon Stephens is responsible for this new version, with original music by Chris Thorpe to accompany the chorus of firefighters observing and participating in the convincing madness unfolding on stage.
Sat with his paper and a glass of wine poured by the housekeeper, well-off businessman and local political enthusiast Gregory Trueman, is fed up of the town’s arsonists. All around the city fires get lit and buildings burn. It began with a few houses, then a hotel, a theatre, but nobody knows why. Mouthing off in the local pub about his proposed solution to the problem – spoiler, it involves hanging the arsonists – Trueman is caught unawares. Someone is listening. The next day, a stranger arrives on his doorstep. Bit by bit the charismatic visitor and his friend begin to win over Trueman, hiding in plain sight of their convictions, leading him further down the garden path until the point of no return is reached.
Inbetween the increasingly frenetic scenes, the cast form a backline of firefighters to perform original songs, which are more spoken and chanted than sung. They are accompanied by a brash drumkit and grungy electric guitar, both used to great effect in gloom-ifying the mood and bringing to a simmer the sense of atmospheric inevitability about the fate of Trueman and his wife. While complimentary to the vibe, the music does somewhat eliminate the already dwindling subtlety in the narrative. I’m not convinced that the songs added anything which couldn’t otherwise have been added by supplementary characters. That the (talented and believable) musicians serve as pseudo-narrators further establishes that point.
The star of this play is its messaging and the questions it poses. What happens if you don’t intervene when something doesn’t feel right? How does extremism (political or otherwise) spread throughout a populus? Does our society and its systems perpetuate the acceptance of evil as standard? What role does class have to play in all of this? The production ends as it begins, with, cigarette smoke permeating the atmosphere, things as hazy as they were before. Morality, trust, sexism, class, the purpose of academia and intellectualism, nothing’s off the table. But, weirdly, nothing is on the table, explicitly, either. That no questions are answered in any leading way is testament to the production’s claim that it is ‘amoral’. The challenge of this production, though, is that it presents such vivid and absurd extremes that it is hard not to walk away without feeling pretty negative about the state of our world.
That’s not to say it’s a drab night in the theatre. In fact, it’s very funny, in more than just a titter-raising way. And its performers are all hugely talented and well-cast. Adam Owers makes his professional debut as Trueman, not that you could tell. His performance is as committed and energetic as you’re likely to see, he uses his entire body in the physical and emotional transformation of his character from well-to-do middle class business man, to crazed and delusional victim. His performance wouldn’t be out of place in a classic hectic physical comedy, and I could have watched him all night without getting bored. Tommy Oldroyd is another standout, as Joseph Smith – the charismatic if low-key terrifying arsonist tasked with winning over Trueman. From the moment he sets foot on stage he captivates and continues to do so even in scenes which are not his to steal. The rest of the cast and two actor-musicians are convincing and are directed ably by Abigail Graham.
Trueman and the Arsonists is clearly an important piece of theatre. It is a timeless play restaged imaginatively in a way which challenges theatrical norms. Where it struggles to have an impact, it is saved by a superb cast and some challenging themes and questions which its audiences will be thinking about for many days after. The lack of hope, for me, is one of its irredeemable flaws, as a text. My interpretation, however, is just that – and I would thoroughly recommend it for ninety minutes of thought-provocation, if not groundbreaking entertainment.
Trueman and the Arsonists plays at Camden Roundhouse until Wednesday 8th November 2023.
For more information and tickets visit: https://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/trueman-and-the-arsonists
Photos by Harry Elletson