Theatre review - Herding Cats

Lucinda Coxon’s depiction of urban loneliness is both brutal and funny. Herding Cats opens with a rapid exchange between twenty-something Justine (Olivia Hallinan) and Michael (Philip McGinley) in their minimally furnished home. We presume they are a couple. Justine is incensed by the behaviour of a new arrival at the office, Nigel, an ex hippy from the “lazy-bastard generation” who, she claims, “needs his backside kicking from here to kingdom come.” Michael is calm and consoling and we are only given the merest of hints as to his work – he chats to strangers for a living.

Gradually, though, we recognise that Justine’s belligerence and Michael’s stoicism are mere fronts for their inner fragility. Justine’s contradictory feelings for her older work colleague are actually the beginning of an unhealthy obsession, while Michael’s line of work allows him to manipulate others’ emotions because he has no control over his own. As Coxon skilfully demonstrates, hate is often the precursor to desire and holding power over someone can swiftly descend into co-dependency.

Vulnerability is the play’s central theme. About halfway through the play’s 80-minute duration, we realise that they are not a couple after all. Justine has become embroiled with the man she loves to hate and Michael is addicted to the phonecalls with ‘Saddo’ (David Michaels), a sadistic paedophile who pays Michael to enact the role of his abused daughter. Christmas approaches and both their lives reach saturation point. Justine is now obsessed with Nigel and drinking heavily and Michael has crossed a line with his client. Justine’s tirades are high-octane funny which accentuates our feelings of writhing discomfort when the play switches to Michael’s scenes with Saddo – by contrast, their measured dialogue cut like a knife and the softly amplified voices adds to a sense of menace.

Then Coxon pulls the rug from under our feet once again by revealing that the pair’s friendship is not based on solid foundations. How well do they really know one another? Both are lonely souls floundering in the city, struggling to make meaningful connections. Michael, who throughout has appeared the stronger of the two, is actually suffering from ME and unable to face the outside world. The brilliance of Coxon’s writing is how she confounds our expectations, stripping away the layers of her two characters to reveal their inner cores only in the final scenes. Anthony Banks skilfully negotiates the shifts between comedy and the play’s darker side. Even the interludes between scenes, full of loud music and vivid tableaux, give a sense of frenzied activity, of thoughts whirring and emotions bubbling away.

Garance Mareneur’s set, dominated by a giant, white sofa and carpet and beautifully lit by James Mackenzie, underlines Justine and Michael’s sterile domestic environment. McGinley and Michaels give outstanding performances, investing their characters’ interactions with a distinctly creepy edge, and Hallinan brilliantly conveys Justine’s terrible desperation hidden behind a brittle exterior.

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