Review: Catch-22 at the Playhouse

catch-22 liverpoolplayhouse
Date: 13/05/2014

The opening scene to Catch 22 is instructive. In trying to figure out whether a WWII bombing mission was a success or not, Captain John Yossarian’s senior officers ponder whether he should be promoted or shot. Such is the offhand, everyday absurdity of a world at war – and the recurring motif of Joseph Heller’s most famous novel.

Yossarian flirts with the idea that in a mad world, insanity is the only sensible choice – and finds little to discourage that outlook amid commanding officers and fellow grunts who all seem to be various shades of nutty. Yet any man sane enough to declare his insanity, as far as the powers-that-be are concerned, is sane enough to fly near-suicidal missions over the Mediterranean. That’s the catch – and it’s potentially, almost inevitably, lethal for Yossarian and his squadron.

There are no bum notes in the performances of this new, and rare, adaptation of Heller’s masterwork – a thankless, surely exhausting, task requiring nine actors to fulfil nearly 40 roles. That some of the cast are not physically dissimilar makes it difficult to keep track of who’s who and some of the less well-known characters are lost in the maelstrom.

Philip Arditti is effortlessly good as Yossarian, while David Webber is amusing as Colonel Korn and Major Major – two very different men, both trapped in a system they recognise as utterly barking. There’s an eye-rolling, scenery-chewing performance by Michael Hodgson – perfect as a cameo from a mad Strangelovian psychoanalyst, but his shrill performance as Colonel Cathcart seems at odds with the rather more nuanced performances around him. It’s as if the director couldn’t decide which approach was best, so decided to chuck everything at the wall.

On top of the uneven performances are a Potterish song-and-dance routine that comes from nowhere and disappears shortly afterwards, some full-frontal nudity and stylised dream sequences. Perhaps this is all intended to convey the chaotic insanity of war, but it means that the audience has little to hang onto – nudity aside – and is in danger of sliding off completely.

Characters, their identities, motivations and agency are lost amid breakneck changes of scene, actor and setting, while the recurring syllogism, circular logic and absurdity – revisited time and again – feel interminable. Catch 22 is a wonderful novel, an interesting film and a pretty testing play; Heller’s own adaptation reduces texture and depth to a series of set pieces and linguistic trickery. On paper it’s dizzying, hilarious – but listening to actors regurgitate it endlessly feel like an Abbott & Costello sketch on meth.

The set – the guts of a crashed B-52 bomber – is stunning, overwhelming, but feels like it works against the cast as often as it aids them and there are hints of the delirious chaos that permeate the book as the play hurtles towards its conclusion. The audience certainly gets its money’s worth.

Director Rachel Chavkin mentions in her notes that there came a point when she was underlining every word of dialogue. At three hours long, the audience might wish she’d taken a red pen to the text instead. There’s a lot to like in Catch-22 but, fundamentally, there’s a lot. As Yossarian darts off-set to go AWOL the audience might feel relief that their protagonist has escaped relatively unscathed, but more prosaically that they can stretch their legs.

Liverpool Playhouse
Until 31 May 2014