Flatmates Justine and Michael are both still in their twenties, but they are galloping away from life not towards it. Justine leaves early in the morning and returns at night, hyper and wired, feeling under appreciated by her baby boomer boss and weaving stories in which she is ostensibly in control and full of witty putdowns.
Meanwhile Michael never leaves the flat after an unspecified incident and instead earns a living selling phone sex, in particular to Saddo, who has disturbing fantasies about his daughter Juliette, who Michael impersonates. Or maybe Saddo doesn’t have a daughter.
Nothing is certain in Lucinda Coxon’s Herding Cats, a desperately sad little play that I first saw at the Ustinov theatre in Bath back in 2010 and which now arrives in a new staging at Soho Theatre in hybrid form. Sophie Melville and Jassa Ahluwalia perform live before an in-person audience, while Greg Germann’s Saddo is beamed live from New York.
Jassa Ahluwalia as Michael & Sophie Melville as Justine. Photos by Danny Kaan.
It is a clever device that magnifies the gaping distance between people and which is very neatly handled in Grace Smart’s scenic design and Andrzej Goulding’s projection and video design which neatly imply that all that glitters may not be gold, and perceptions are easily skewed.
Coxon’s play is a bit like looking under a stone and discovering some nasty things wriggling there, and making you wished that perhaps you hadn’t looked. Questions are raised about who is most in thrall and to whom, exploitation and the way we blur fictions and realities and spin stories to make us feel better about ourselves.
If some aspects of the play, including its interrogation of loneliness and intimacy, now seem less prophetic than a decade ago, others are heightened including generational inequalities, the difficulty in establishing careers, the way it’s possible to have a life without ever leaving the house. That’s something we can all relate to after lockdown.
There are moments when the slickness of Anthony Banks’ revival and the skittishness of Coxon’s dialogue makes you think you might simply be in a hall of reflecting mirrors, but the acting bats away the doubts. Melville goes full tilt as a young woman who wears her brightly painted smile as a protection against the world even as she crumbles inside. Ahluwalia conveys the dark edge beneath Michael’s apparent sweetness. Greg Germann brings complexity to Saddo, a man who has clearly been reading too much Sade, and is just as corrosively lonely as this play's youngsters.
Herding Cats is available in person and via streaming until May 22 and will then be available on-demand from June 7-21. You can find tickets here.