WITH Christmas just a few weeks away, it is an easy option for a village drama club to serve up some farcical romp to get an audience into the festive spirit.

But Riding Mill does not have any old drama club. It has a cast of players of professional standards and a hard-earned reputation to match.

So, it should come as no surprise that its latest production strayed far from the seasonal norm, and was probably one of the club’s most challenging ever.

The choice of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists was undoubtedly a big gamble.

A gamble for the actors to pull off such a complex plot; and a gamble for the audience to embrace its rather frightful message. Suffice it to say the gamble paid off in spades. The cast, to a man and woman, was superb.

And the audience, on the opening night at least, captured the mood of this theatrical occasion by watching and listening intently as this heavily political and philosophical plot unravelled.

It is to the enormous credit of the cast, the set designers, the technicians and especially director Chris Heckels that they managed to grip the audience’s attention over a 90-minute period which was free from any slapstick and action, but pitted with dark undertones.

The original play was written by Frisch in 1953, as a parable on the dangers of appeasement and the rise of fascism.

This particular English adaptation dates from 2007. In translation and modernisation, the play may have lost its overt references to Nazism, but it retains Frisch’s original scathing critique of extremism and the lack of individual and state will to confront it head-on.

Peter Woodman was masterful in the lead role of hair restoring tycoon Godfrey Goodman, whose initial stubborn resistance to abandon his morals and principles is stripped bare as he is driven helplessly to passive subservience.

Jean Buckley was word perfect in the fretful role of Goodman’s wife. And Susan Cook, as their maid, was equally impeccable.

Ian Lockey and Shaun Fenwick, as the arsonists, got the maximum value of what little comedy was in the script. Wonderfully, they mastered the difficult trick of switching in quickfire succession from lightheartedness to menace.

The chorus of firefighters offered an unusual, and frankly bizarre, dimension to the play.

They had the potential to distract, but thankfully did not. Rather, they provided the vehicle for Frisch’s overarching commentary that while the state has the willingness to fire-fight too late in the day, all too often it has a reluctance to intervene and root out extremism in its infancy.

Thanks to this courageous production, Riding Mill Drama Club managed to entertain and at the same time deliver a stark, thought-provoking message that has immense relevance in a modern world on the brink of being torn apart by a new wave of extremism.

Colin Tapping