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Oxford Playhouse

Joseph Heller’s own script for a theatrical version of his large 1961 novel, Catch-22, is evocatively set more or less in the guts of a WWII airplane. This metaphoric image dominates the action, which moves swiftly and cleverly from place to place by mere suggestion from the dialogue and a few props. The first half of the play tends to be a set of one-liners and satirical spoof situations; but it is introducing the characters and setting up several situations and ideas that will pay off later. As the play continues, it also darkens, just as the novel did, so that eventually one is completely sympathetic to the trapped characters fighting the end of a long and dangerous war, and especially to the questing and questioning figure of Yossarian, played with bravado and wit by Philip Arditti, who embodies the role almost as fully as did  Alan Arkin did in the Mike Nichols film of 1970.

Arditti is surrounded by a small company that take on all the many parts with real gusto, relying heavily on a kind of Theatre of the Absurd style. The play is essentially a very successful evening that evokes with some strength the iconic novel. Heller’s own adaptation was a hit on Broadway a couple of decades ago and I think this may be the first time that a company in the UK is performing that script; but even adapting his own work, Heller has had to reduce its scope and impact for the stage when he transfers the tale to another medium. Despite being less dense in texture, it is still a worthy introduction to the tale – and to the concept of Catch-22 which has now entered the language and dictionaries so that a young cousin of mine whom I took to see the show was surprised that the title did not come from the well-known phrase, but rather that it was the other way round.

My cousin, who had never read the book, was delighted by the performance and very moved by the second half of the show with its shock climax and its ambiguously uplifting yet suggestively redemptive dénouement. The performances were extremely good and the show, though three hours long, did not seem laboured in any way. It was well-paced by director Rachel Chavkin, with enough serious and quiet moments to give it a good theatrical rhythm.

My cousin now wants to read the book which is, of course, much richer and more complex and a really important and innovative piece of American culture that if Michael Gove has his way, no one would be able to set as a text in UK schools from now on.  If you see this production, you will probably want to read it even though it isn’t “British”.

  • Comedy
  • By Joseph Heller
  • Director: Rachel Chavkin
  • Cast includes: Philip Arditti, Victoria Bewick, Liz Kettle
  • Oxford Playhouse
  • Until 14 June 2014 (then ON TOUR)
  • Review by Mel Cooper
  • 12 June 2014

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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