Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

arson top

Cheers: Jon Richardson as Biedermann, Kathryn Fischer as Anna, Esther Roden as Babette, Al McCaughey as Eisenring and Daniel Robert Beaton as Schmitz. Pictures: Roy Palmer.

The Arsonists

Hall Green Little Theatre


This is a sort of Fireman Sam does Brecht as imagined by Ionesco and adapted by Samuel Beckett – it’s that sort of play. You come out with plenty of questions but precious few answers.

It is said to be a morality play, a parable, with its somewhat bizarre situation being an allegory of a real situation in the real world – in short, it's a graduate of the school of theatre of the absurd, a comedy where the laughs start to become more nervous as the night goes on.

Gottlieb Biedermann is a successful, hard nosed businessman, who wants a perfect, oh so decent, middle-class life at home. He shows remarkable callousness to his employees, and indeed his customers, but then bends over backwards to help out a strange homeless vagrant and his friend, allowing them to stay in his attic.

The town, meanwhile, is gripped by an epidemic of arson attacks by supposedly homeless people wheedling their way into people’s homes after asking for a bed for the night then starting fires in the attack.

Now anyone with brain cells numbering double figures might have worked out that Biedermann’s show of compassion might just be a tad misguided, particularly as he had started proceedings by reading the newspaper reports of the arson attacks and declaring the arsonists should all be shot.

It becomes obvious to anyone still drawing breath that Josef and Billy, are the arsonists, but Biedermann works on the basis that if he helps them, befriends them, gives them anything they want, despite all the evidence challenging his theory, they will leave him alone and he and his home will be safe from attack.

Add that to his head in the sand attitude, his protective wall of denial, that if friendship is not enough, if he refuses to believe the pair are the arsonists then, ergo, the pair won’t be the arsonists.

oil drums

Homeless lodgers storing full fuel drums in the attic could be a hint that all is perhaps not well

Swiss-German writer Max Frisch's play, originally called The Fire Raisers in its 1961 English translation at The Royal Court, started life as a sketch in 1948, in reaction to the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia, and grew into a radio play in Bavaria in 1953.

In Germany, slowly recovering from a costly and painful defeat in World War II, it was seen as a warning about Nazism and how easy it was for otherwise sensible people, or countries, to be taken in by evil until it is too late

The radio play finally evolved to the stage in German in 1958, at the height of the Cold War, still perhaps a cautionary tale against the Nazis or, as in Frisch’s native Cantons, seen as a warning against Communism.

This adaptation, half a century on, by Alistair Beaton in 2007, again for The Royal Court, went back to the German original and Beaton saw in it echoes of today’s world, honest, decent folk being taken in, or finding themselves under threat from any manner of evils from politicians to big business, Brexit to crime, loss of freedom to terrorism to Donald Trump’s take on treaties and foreign policy, as well as pretty well any ism you could think of.

In short you can bung any evil or personal fear into the role of the arsonists duping or deceiving us, the decent majority.

The bastion of the masses is Biedermann, itself a doubled edged joke. In German Bieder translates as conventional, worthy, middle-class, so Gottlieb is conventional, worthy, middle-class man.

And there is a personal touch as well. Frisch who worked as both a journalist and an architect in the 1930s and 40s ended up in a damaging court battle over a house he had designed for millionaire shampoo magnate K F Ferster.

His revenge was to use him as a basis for Biederman who is bombastic and heartless in business where he makes his fortune selling hair restorer that doesn’t work.


The Greek fire fighter chorus

Jon Richardson is superb as Biedermann, a fussy little man who drives one of his former employees, an inventor to suicide, treats his maid with open contempt yet ingratiates himself to the weird vagrant strangers Josef Schmitz, the ex-wrestler, and the ex-waiter, and ex con, Billy Eisenring, in his full waiter’s outfit of tails.

Daniel Robert Beaton is a perfect Josef in a masterful performance, perhaps his best to date. He makes Josef personable, persuasive, believable – as far as anyone can be in this play – yet with a hint of casual evil behind his smiling eyes. He manages to be demanding in the friendliest way, as with his step by step call for extra item after item from Anna the maid when offered bread and wine – the elements for Communion for those who like a helping of religion with their conspiracy theories.

Al McCaughey is his match as Billy, constantly apologising for Josef’s rough table manners and lack of sophistication – due to his troubled childhood. Billy is the epitome of politeness, with almost gushing gratitude when Biedermann helps him in his nefarious endeavours. His passion for arson is so matter of fact, so normal that it is frightening.

The pair, along with Richardson, are quite superb in parts which are not easy to carry off with any real conviction, but they manage it with aplomb.

There is a good support cast as well. We have Kathryn Fisher as Anna, the put-upon maid, who is always being ordered about, even being criticised for laying out the table for dinner with the best linen, glassware and candles – Biedermann not wanting to look too formal, too middle class, too superior to his pyromaniac guests.

Then there is Esther Roden as Gottlieb’s wife Babette, attempting unsuccessfully, to be the voice of reason. She realises what is going on, but hubby can’t afford to believe her . . . because if he does it means he has two arsonists living in his attic.

Paul Holtom doubles up as first the policeman who you suspect would not recognise a criminal if they wore a mask, striped jumper and carried a bag marked swag, then as a Professor of Philosophy studying the arsonists.

And who could forget Louise Price as Mrs Knechiling, widow of the inventor who has committed suicide after Biedermann’s refusal to pay him his due royalties. She arrives, sits, waits and leaves without being seen by the master of the house, saying ne’er a word.

Behind it all we have a Greek chorus, who, if they really are Greek, one must assume came from the Athens’ fire brigade, fireman Samos and his crew no doubt. Led by Ros Davies, Steven Brear, Richard Scott, Roger Warren and Jean Wilde add their own symbolic moments to proceedings wearing helmets bedecked with skulls, created by Ceri Sian. Davies’s skull having additional jester’s bells as well as her wearing gloves, to signify her leadership.  


Ceri Sian's stunning mask creations

It is not an easy setting with a living room, a street and an attic and Julia Roden’s design is functional to bring all elements together with a raised attic at the rear of the stage, office-cum-dining room stage right and a minimalist entrance and street stage left and into the auditorium.

Tal Bainbridge and Rob Scott’s lighting helps highlight scenes in the attic, in the dining room and so on, and along with smoke machines and Don Honnor’s sound give a symbolic impression of a world consumed by fire.

Director Steve Fisher keeps things well on track, not easy with absurdist theatre, and Hall Green should be commended for producing a landmark piece of world theatre. It is not the easiest watch, partly because what we perceive to be the normal rules of theatre do not apply.

For a start it could be set anywhere or at any time, the narrative is always just out of reach, the plot is not quite in tune with logic, the characters are vaguely familiar but not quite right, the laughs have no jokes to rely on, and, above all, it demands a talented cast to carry it off.

Hall Green have managed the latter splendidly. Not the easiest watch but it is a chance to see a not often produced and famous play performed admirably by a fine cast. To 09-02-9.

Roger Clarke


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