Joseph Heller
The Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group
The Biscuit Factory

Graham Pritz-Bennett, Gordon Houston, Wendy Brindle, John Lally Credit: Gordon Hughes
Keegan Siebken, Gordon Houston Credit: Gordon Hughes
Dimitri Woods Credit: Gordon Hughes

There are few properties that quite so aptly and pertinently encompass the insanity of wartime military as Joseph Heller’s seminal novel Catch-22. The very term “Catch-22” has long been a common reference used by those utterly unfamiliar with the book: a self-fulfilling loop of circular logic that can’t be broken. Or, simpler put, an inescapable situation.

The story of John Yossarian (Gordon Houston), the traumatised B-25 bombardier trying to get out of combat, has become a go-to reference for needless and self-perpetuating bureaucracy; and Heller’s stage adaptation ensures that the satirical tale loses none of this thematic resonance.

The play is staged in the yawning, bare concrete hall of Edinburgh’s Biscuit Factory, with only a few ammo crates and kegs as stage furniture and the skeletal metal frame of a bomber’s nosecone acting as a backdrop. This golden-lit bare space flits between the US Air Force base on the small island of Pianosa and the city of Rome with smart minor scene changes and altered lighting.

The audience follows Yossarian and his various colleagues through the maddening insanity of the last months of the Mediterranean campaign, as the deaths casually mount and each character exhibits his own peculiar madness. It’s Yossarian’s plight as the man desperately trying to get out of the cycle of an ever-rising number of missions requiring completion before he can go home. As he flits from hospital, to mission, to furlough, he flirts with many nurses, Italian women and various maladies, begs and pleads with officers and medic and tries to find loopholes at every turn.

Yossarian’s story is interspersed with Chaplain Tappman’s (Dmitri Woods) own struggles to make sense of the bizarre madness all around him, coming face to face with the glory-hungry lunacy of Colonels Cathcart (Richard Godden) and Korn (Laurence Wareing) and internal CID investigations into the Airbase. Throw in myriad other characters and an unreliable narrator and it’s a whirlwind of tragicomic lunacy.

The Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group has managed to pull off something quite spectacular in bringing this piece to the stage in such a smooth and entertaining manner. With 40 characters played by the 14-strong cast, it’s a feat that, through only mannerisms and minor costume changes, it’s almost always readily apparent who is being portrayed.

Naturally, a lot of the heavy lifting is done by Houston as Yossarian and he manages to straddle the thin line between understandable airman and wearisome lunatic, guiding the audience through the events, exposition, comic scenes and moments of tragedy. He’s sympathetic and likeable even when caddishly seducing Italian local Luciana (Eirini Stamkou) or Nurse Duckett (Bethany Cunningham) or lying to doctors, as well as in the many moments when faced with horrifying sadness. He also proves a deft comic foil, particularly in a wonderful scene playing off Richard Godden’s disconcertingly horny psychiatrist.

It’s a tough role, but one supported by a capable cast with nary a bum note amongst them. There are occasional moments when the affected accents of various characters threaten to slip, but it’s forgivable and at times adds to the general sense of manic hysteria throughout.

Some events have been streamlined for the sake of keeping the play to a tolerable length, meaning some favourite moments have been truncated or omitted, but the flow never gets languid or tired as a result, much of which is due to Hannah Bradley’s skilful direction of the actors and the snappy zip of the cast onstage.

One downside of this production is that The Biscuit Factory is not a great venue for a chilly November night, both because of the bitter cold of the unheated concrete space and also because the occasional door openings and footsteps elsewhere in the building can be heard during the play. Naturally, it’s no fault of EGTG that they happen to be playing during the coldest snap of the winter so far, but audiences would be well advised to wear warm clothes and coats and keep them on throughout.

Another issue that stems from the source material is that Heller’s script assumes a basic knowledge of what’s going on and, although it does drop enough information to keep people up with things, it could be overpowering to the uninitiated. Thankfully, Bradley’s direction and the staging go some ways to assuaging the issue and for those who have read the book or seen the existing film or television adaptations will sidestep this problem entirely.

Really, there’s little not to recommend about this play and for a regular, if technically amateur, company a major major, major, major triumph of a production.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan

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