Catch 22

[author-post-rating] (5/5 Stars)

I must start my review of Northern Stage’s production of Catch 22 by declaring a bias: Joseph Heller’s seminal novel is my favourite. I was intrigued, and slightly concerned, as to how director Rachel Chavkin would interpret its non-chronological and schizophrenic narrative with its myriad of characters and settings.

Set in World War II, the story follows a US Air Force squadron based in Europe. It is the story of young men, desperate to stay alive as they are haunted by the ever-present spectre of death, fighting against and conforming to ‘the man’. Heller’s view of this absurdly bureaucratic military machine is epitomised by the exasperated lead protagonist Yossarian’s attempts to avoid flying.  He pleads insanity in order to avoid flying any more missions. However the US Air Force argue that what could prove a person’s sanity more than not wanting to fly any more missions? This is ‘catch 22’ in a nutshell – you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

There could not have been a better casting of Philip Arditti as Yossarian. His performance is pitch-perfect and encapsulates the character’s desperation to live and the extraordinary lengths he goes to in avoiding death. He rages against the illogical and absurd world they inhabit during war time with a fervour and gusto that is enthralling.

I particularly enjoyed Geoff Arnold’s authentic and perfectly wrought portrayal of the hapless Chaplain. The superlatives don’t end there as Christopher Price brought the right amount of panache to his portrayal of Milo Minderbender and Michael Hodgson’s Colonel Cathcart was just beautifully absurd.

The play was artfully and boldly directed by Chavkin, whose complete grasp of the novel –  what parts to leave out and what parts to accentuate – would not disappoint any fan of the book. It is her love of the novel that really translates to the stage.

Each actor skilfully played multiple characters but the use of the scenery and space was masterful and allowed the audience the sense when an actor was switching characters in a flash. The set design drew genuine ‘wows’ from the audience and the stage was used to its full potential as the play moved from scene to scene – often with multiple scenes occurring at once. The audience was treated to a feast of the senses without feeling overwhelmed.

At just over three hours the play could be a little long for those who are not familiar with the book. I was able to recognise scenes instantly and was surprised when the interval crept up on the audience. It’s relentless pace, energetic performances, and brilliantly scripted dialogue left for only one or two lulls in the production.

The black humour of the novel shone through and the comic timing was superb.  This was expertly juxtaposed against the overriding sense of futility that permeates the performance and enabled the darker moments of the play to hit home. Anyone looking for an evening’s entertainment should look no further than Catch 22.

Catch 22 is playing the Theatre Royal, Brighton until 17 May. For more information and tickets, see the Brighton Festival website.