Catch – 22 – The Biscuit Factory

Written by Joseph Heller

Directed by Hannah Bradley

Insidiously paradoxical, Captain Yossarian (Yo-Yo) finds himself confined by the titular catch of the airforce: those who are compos mentis enough to recognise the dangers of flying are sane enough to pass the medical. Which unfortunately means playing insane isn’t an option, as only the loons would put themselves forward to fly. Joseph Heller’s satirical war-drama Catch-22 surrounds itself in miscommunications and the improbable, so who better to tackle this than Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group?

Notoriously difficult, Heller’s Catch-22 claims the dignity of various adaptations which fail to grasp the nuances of balancing pathos which lacerating satire. A starkly timeless narrative, with nightmarish complexities surrounding bureaucracy, it primarily lampoons military narcissism and economics. In truth, it’s a text which reads far more impressively than it is often performed, then again, have EGTG ever been ones to shy from a challenge?

Evidently, director Hannah Bradley, along with Assistant director Hannah Fitzpatrick, has a firm grip on the structure of the production, and a deep care for the original novel. Honing in on the ironic elements, knowing this can instil a wider range of investment within a limited timescale, Bradley encourages performers to capitalise on people remembering humorous or big characters clearer than subtle performances.

And what a plethora to remember, without neglecting others, huge praise needs to be spoken for Gordon Houston, Richard Godden and Joshua McDiarmid’s performances, with extra kudos on offer to Bethany Cunningham who takes the smaller nursing role and makes it entirely her own. Bradley’s decision to have a larger representative production works beyond mere diversity, the chorus of female performers add to the flavour of scenes, Erini Stamkou pushing the psychotic extremes of American G.I’s fears over ‘others’ to the extreme.

Carrying a lengthy production, Houston achieves a precise level of defiance against the system, yet is also broken by its repetitious assaults to his body, psyche and spirit. He has a balance of over-zealous exasperation, channelling sensationally British comedy stars. He’s enthralling, drawing out the best of others, and matching wits with the more experienced performers of EGTG. The inevitability of death, a fascination of Heller’s, Yossarian is cast in a shadow of his follower, regardless of where he may venture.

One such wit, that of Godden, whose multiple performances build to a side-splitting rendition of a physiatrist in need of examination is a short, but paramount scene to the success of the production. Not all about the gallows humour, Cunningham and Dimitri Woods’ Chaplain crash the violent realities of war onto the stage. Woods’ performance grows in time, at first, it seems delicate, but an iron core is drawn out, with some soft-hearted humour cladding the character and representing the text’s loss of religious faith rather beautifully. Bolstering his part by the fact his primary role, like Houston, is one which never alters into secondary or tertiary parts, which is sadly where some performances flounce.

This becomes particularly evident with time shifts, especially when performers take on two-separate roles within minutes of each other. There needs to be a distinctly apparent change, which needs to stretch beyond a physical switch for some performers. This can be seen with the epitome of capitalist thrift, Milo Minderbinder. A fascinating character, but Siebken’s other, much smaller parts, can’t measure to the same quality. Free to exaggerate characters, the cast can become too large, too reliant on simple physical characteristics, losing an intimacy or recognition with the audience.

It’s an intrinsic issue with the text, valiant as their attempt is, a cast of fourteen, regardless of talent, will find a struggle in representing such a high volume of characters. It makes for messy moments, which tangle themselves up in what has been a wonderfully weaved web of understanding. Untangling one issue, that of how to stage a piece like this has been methodically thought through.

The Biscuit Factory, a sensational venue which deserves greater recognition, is the prime setting for Bradley’s decision to assail us into the action. Thrust staging creates awkward situations, but a testament to the thought process behind Catch-22, there is little question that a seat anywhere would offer a clear viewing. What’s more, going beyond simple seating, Bradley’s concept of placing us within the confines of the famous B-25windows captures ensnaring claustrophobia, brilliantly designed by Chris Allan and Michael Mulligan.

Aiding immensely in this transition, particularly to separate scenes, or the passing of time is Gordon Hughe’s seamless lighting design. Few of the transitions are pronounced, rather they reinforce the emotion of a scene without detracting from performers, complimentary in execution. Whether this is bathing the cold, unfeeling concrete of The Biscuit Factory in the lurid verdure of madness, or a stark rose of passion, it’s impressive world-building.

The impotence of language laces through the production, from the obvious censorships of Washington Irving to how language can circumvent logic, it’s clear how much of a grasp on Catch 22 Bradley and EGTG have. This alone is a testament to the theatre companies ability with fathomable shows, which they stage in ways others would turn from, in venues many wouldn’t consider. Catch-22 is by no means an easy watch, though, by no fault of the team, its errors lie within Heller’s engorgement of the character roster and his overlapping motifs and words. What Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group are performing at this moment is one of the closest adaptations, while being so inherently different, that there is no doubt Heller would be proud of its creative impossibility and is an absolute must-watch.

Catch – 22 runs at The Biscuit Factory until Saturday November 16th. Tickets are available from: https://theegtg.com/2019/08/30/catch-22/

Still No Idea – Traverse Theatre

Written by Lisa Hammond, Rachel Spence & Lee Simpson

Directed by Lee Simpson

Writer and performer Lisa Hammond joins fellow creator Rachael Spence in looking to unravel a key issue facing the industry today. While attempts to increase representation and diversity deserve praise, what happens when we seek to change the world… and nothing changes?

The duo’s performance is invigorating and marvellously energetic, as their attempts to establish some semblance of what sort of show to create often sees them boxed into the same corners over and over. In asking the public what sort of show the two of them would appear in, it’s humorous to hear about Hammond’s ‘cheeky face’ and watch as Spence launches into imaginative situations the public toss to her, even if they do run longer than necessary.

Affairs, spy dramas, haunted houses and, well, then there’s Hammond. It appears, without malice, that there just isn’t room for her in these stories. Here, the production takes a pointed turn towards becoming an openly honest piece on disabled performers. It tackles day-to-day invisibility of disability, or a hypersensitivity which is somehow worse. 

As Spence leads an outlandish game of public charades, Hammond tackles ‘inclusion porn’, plucking comments from interviews, twisting what the public isn’t saying into a tangible and emotive stance. Both performers have fierce stage presence, Hammond especially has a projection and timing to hold the court with ease.

When the names of those fatally affected by benefit cuts, the DWP’s statistics of those found ‘fit for work’ scroll by, the laughter dies away. These are names of individuals who found it difficult to cope; Hammond, Spence and Lee Simpson’s script becomes brutal, yet requires no fabrication, simply the facts.

Balancing this heartache with a welcoming, family-like presence, Hammond and Spence are delightful to watch. Still No Idea is a fascinating interrogation of the creative process. But more than this, it’s a precise arrow into mainstream media attitudes towards not only those with disabilities, but towards single mothers and other marketable ‘sob stories’.

It leaves its audience with the message that if the world won’t respond to our attempts to change it, we’ll just have to make our own narratives.

Review originally published for The Skinny: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/theatre/shows/reviews/still-no-idea-traverse-theatre-edinburgh

Photo credit – Camila Greenwell

Prism – King’s Theatre

Written & Directed by Terry Johnson

Based on the life of Jack Cardiff

Entire artistry in its own right, the conduction of light by Jack Cardiff would define a method of cinematography which pervades the artform to this day. The Red ShoesThe African Queen and The Black Rose, there is scarcely a shred of celluloid which at one point hasn’t had some kind of inspiration from this man. Terry Johnson’s Prism allows the star of stage and screen Robert Lindsay to capture a man who would dedicate his career to capturing the right angle of Hollywood’s finest, and how in his later life Alzheimer’s would cast his recollection further and further back into these sepia-tinted days of showbiz.

Shackling ourselves to a chain of memories born of anxieties, love, regret and experience, we place a tremendous deal of what defines the ‘self’ into the composite of how we evaluate our lives. What then, when the cruellest form of affliction, dementia, early on-set or age-related, loosens these tethers and slowly ebbs away our most recent memories, placing us firmly in a comforting, if distant past? This is Johnson’s intention with Prism, to offer a glimpse into the closing scenes of Cardiff’s life, just before the credits begin to roll. 

In essence, a biographical (if artistic) production places itself into the hands of its principal performer. In Robert Lindsay, there is not a qualm to locate. His charm is silky, yes, but his emotional control over the condition is as approachable as it is painful in depiction. Ironically, though the metaphor wouldn’t be lost on Cardiff – there is a spectrum of emotion, a Prism if you will allow. In his closing moments, the tiniest nuance of detail leads to a crushing realisation – something which, for Cardiff, is worse than losing his memory, and once we realise that Lindsay has been laying the groundwork for this through the second half, it’s aching to comprehend.

Unafraid of the industries nature, Terry Johnston’s writing refrains from treating Cardiff as an untouchable treasure, indeed taking liberties which would perhaps be appropriate for the role. Jokes of the infamous casting couch, while certainly a distasteful reference, would tragically be common practice. The humour, well-written, also slips in a few gags which roll eyes for their age, but again, this would be correct for Cardiff’s character. Where Johnston’s writing balances this humour, and it takes a while to do so, is in the demonstration of dementia’s influence beyond the individual sufferer. Something Johnston takes partial credit for, but Fitzgerald rightfully claims a deal more.

Nicola or Katie (Katharine Hepburn) as Cardiff fails to remember which, at first is an identifiable role, a wife standing beside her partner, who openly displays the frustrations and loneliness of dealing with a loved one suffering from the condition. The thought of being a blank face, to someone you have shared a life with, is disheartening to even imagine, yet somehow Fitzgerald communicates a tremendous deal while saying little. Taking on the role of her predecessor, the apparent love of Cardiff’s life, is a metamorphosis, capturing Hepburn’s diction, as well as her timeless class.

Echoes of the past dance in the background, references of the days Cardiff regresses towards as the condition worsens. Prism is arguably for the cinephiles more so than the theatrical crowd, and while it is indeed possible for fans of one to respect the other, there is such depth in the knowledge of filmmaking – from the jabs at aspect ratio, to references of actors inability or habits, the production has a definitive screen quality to its DNA.

In an expedition of Cardiff’s history, the location of Prism takes unique transitions to expand the horizons beyond simplistic storytelling. In the closing of act one, Tim Shortall’s design feels excessive, but for the second its purpose is evident. With cinema at its heart, Ian William Galloway’s video design is where the set excels. Six portraits of cinema’s defining performers (minus Bette Davis…) enhance the mise en scène with small quirks, movements and tricks. If possible, tear your eyes away from Lindsay’s performance, and you may spot a theatrical ‘Easter egg’ of cinematic inspiration.

While Lindsay beams out in technicolour, Victoria Blunt and Oliver Hembrough find themselves squarely in the tones of Kinemacolor, far from feeble, but without the range Lindsay and Fitzgerald offer. Principally this lies within the narrative, Johnson’s writing paints Blunts character on the edges of sitcom territory, with a shoehorning of drama in the second act for us to feel sympathy, trouble being it loses out to our emotional investment in Lindsay. Blunt’s brief spell as Monroe, while a caricature, is dripping with delivery, decadent and quite stirring in all the right ways.

Filmstrip offers a glimpse of immortality for the chosen few, though it will never stand the test of our true marker – time. Nailing a performance which one will seek to capture for an age, Lindsay pays Cardiff in kind, reminding us of his immeasurable talents, eventually succumbing to a callous condition. As these timeless classics of film fade ever more into obscurity, they are a reminder that all good things must end; paintings will tarnish, whiskey dries and the light which Cardiff so exquisitely framed fades. Prism offers a range of artistic celebration, and this is a love letter from the stage to the big screen.

Runs at The King’s Theatre until Saturday November 2nd. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/prism

Photo Credit – Manuel Harlan Video Credit – Capital Theatres