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Review: Catch-22 at Northern Stage, Newcastle

An American classic has taken wing in the North East. David Whetstone reviews Northern Stage's Catch-22

****
TOPHER MCGRILLIS Geoff Arnold Daniel Ainsworth and Philip Arditti in Catch-22 at Northern Stage
Geoff Arnold Daniel Ainsworth and Philip Arditti in Catch-22 at Northern Stage

No point beating around the bush. This is a very classy show and hugely enjoyable. Long, yes, at more than three hours... but in my experience nothing this good ever seems that long.

It must have helped that Joseph Heller had written his own stage version of his famous novel in which a sane man tries to prove his madness when all around are clearly barking.

But in the wrong hands this would have been no guarantee of success. There is no strong, whodunit-style plot to carry cast and audience through choppy waters to the final curtain.

No, everything about Catch-22 puts the ball firmly in the court of the director (in this case the American Rachel Chavkin - well done to her), the actors (nine of them playing a multitude of parts) and the creative folk around them.

It is an exploration of bureaucratic absurdity set within the confines of a US Second World War bomber unit and encapsulated in the mythical, mystical Catch-22 rule which ensures you’ll never win however hard you try.

The action is episodic, turning the idea of institutional and personal madness over and over and presenting it in different ways.

And I can promise that you don’t have to have served in a wartime air force unit to find parallels within your own life. I laughed in recognition rather more than I might have thought feasible – or healthy!

The play begins with airman Yossarian being upbraided by his commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, for having taken two attempts – the second one successful – to bomb a bridge. What was he thinking? He could have got someone killed?

A solution is found, thanks to the intervention of Cathcart’s brighter assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Korn: he will be given a medal – and promoted. But only if he promises to say nice things about them.

Everything in this world is topsy turvy and everyone has a hidden agenda except poor Yossarian who is utterly honest at all times. He’s flown a lot of missions and he would like out. He’ll try anything... even if it means trying to prove he’s mad.

I enjoyed all the performances immensely. Arditti’s Yossarian is a patently intelligent man in a hopeless predicament, a latterday Alice in a kind of Wonderland. Behind the eyes focused on a far horizon and the often slack-jawed expression of disbelief, you can see the mental cogs whirring.

When he strips naked and climbs a ‘tree’ – represented by the downed bomber which dominates Jon Bausor’s brilliant set – you sympathise. What else could a sane wannabe nutcase do in the circumstances?

As Cathcart, Michael Hodgson is everything I hoped he would be.

The North East actor does all brands of madness – buttoned up, explosive, dangerous – with enormous aplomb and relishes a role that could have been made for him (shades of the scary Fenwick security guard he played here in Noir some years ago). Uniform brings out the best in him.

David Webber is Korn and also the wonderfully named Major Major and Doc Daneeka, the good-natured but querulous squadron doctor who takes to climbing out of the window whenever a patient/faker comes to call.

I laughed at him, at the American spiv trying to sell chocolate-covered cotton to the troops (he’s got to shift it somehow), at the hapless chaplain and the young prositute (multi-tasking Victoria Bewick) whose morals also have a Catch-22 built into them.

Catch-22 is at Northern Stage until May 10 and then flies off on a national tour when it will serve as a fine ambassador for theatre in the North East. Box office: 0191 230 5151 or www.northernstage.co.uk

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