First Night: The Arsonists, Royal Court Theatre, London

Damp squib of a play that slowly fizzles out
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The Independent Culture

The stage of a theatre is one of the few public spaces where it is still permissible to light up a fag. So it wasn't entirely surprising that when the leading character came on at the start of the press performance of The Arsonists and fished for his Marlboros and a box of matches, one of the first-night crowd encouraged him with the shout of "Go on!".

It was not the most helpful of heckles, though. Far from representing a blow for liberty, lighting a cigarette in this play is supposed to be a high-risk activity, since it might get you fingered as one of the eponymous felons who are terrorising the town, or it might trigger the catastrophic conflagration that is clearly imminent. And, sure enough, no sooner has Will Keen's Biedermann put flame to fag than the parody Greek chorus of loquacious, philosophical Firemen slide down poles and swoop on him.

There are moments when I would happily have trained one of their own hoses on this group of uniformed wiseacres, who spell out for us the all-too-obvious meaning of Max Frisch's 1958 play. Inspired by the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, this absurdist parable satirises the way that people can be manipulated into accommodating the very thing that will destroy them. With Biedermann, a prosperous hair tonic manufacturer, the accommodation is literal.

He takes in a couple of blatant arsonists and continues to propitiate them, despite the barrels of petrol that are accumulating in his attic. The threat is so unspecified politically that the situation can be angled in many different ways. Rise of Nazism, anyone?

Using a sharp, adroitly booby-trapped translation by Alistair Beaton, Ramin Gray's production sets the play in the present day. The arsonists, who cheekily revel in their own transparency in the puckish, Pinter-and-water performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Chahidi, sing a catch of "London's Burning" at the climactic dinner party.

Munir Khairdin's doctor of philosophy, whose 12th-hour recantation from terrorism is drowned out by the pandemonium of disaster, is presented as a Muslim intellectual. But these touches merely serve to emphasise how this play is the opposite of pertinent to our times. Far from being latter-day Biedermanns, we are, if anything, too prone to paranoia; trigger-happy in a state of fear that may inure us to the steady erosion of our civil liberties.

On top of that, the production makes some mystifying choices. A modernist fish tank does not strike me as a plausible home for the Biedermann family and the flat, helipad roof makes the attic scenes look nonsensical. The petrol barrels are lowered from the sky as if by some act of God (when the point of the drama is that it's not fate but rectifiable human choices which create this kind of horror).

At sketch length, The Arsonists would burn brightly. Labouring through 90 minutes of wearisome black comedy to its glaring, designedly foreseeable conclusion, the play is a damp squib that takes forever to fizzle out.

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