“I literally exploded,” Justine recounts to her roommate Michael, the first line in “Herding Cats.” And Lucinda Coxon’s play does wind up feeling like an explosion – surely meant to shock and awe us with its rapid-fire dialogue and punishing relationships: Justine starts off hating her new boss Nigel, who sexually harasses her, but she soon falls for him, and feels destroyed; Michael engages in seamy, increasingly sadistic sexual role-play phone calls with a man aptly named Saddo, but he soon realizes it’s not just a way to make a living; it’s something he needs.
But the awe in watching “Herding Cats” for much of the audience earlier this month was most likely that, a decade after the play’s premiere, a new production was being presented in-person on stage of London’s Soho Theatre – part of the reopening of British theatre; at the same time, the show was being presented online… in two different ways. First, while both Sophie Melville and Jassa Ahluwalia (portraying Justine and Michael, respectively) were performing live on stage, the third actor, Greg Germann (portraying Saddo), was being projected onto the London stage live from Los Angeles. Second, viewers at home could watch the play on the Stellar online platform.
I would like to think that this kind of hybrid experimenting is a harbinger of our post-pandemic future. I also hope, though, that they don’t just scour the backlist for old plays that feel appropriate for such treatment.
I think I understand why the producers considered this a timely revival. Nigel (whom we only hear about from Justine; he’s not portrayed) is arguably a #MeToo predator prototype. The other three characters are molded (warped) by their loneliness. The title of the play is a phrase that Justine uses to talk about how she tries to handle Nigel, but it speaks more generally I think about the difficulty that people have in connecting with one another. Michael is agoraphobic; we’re meant to understand that the only person he actually sees in person is his roommate. A turning point in the plot occurs when Michael uses Saddo’s credit card without his approval to buy a T-shirt for Justine — one that says “Love” if you look at it straight on, but “Hate” in the mirror.
Like much of “Herding Cats,” that’s memorable, maybe — helped along by a game cast — but not profound. The blasts of adrenaline and voyeurism in this 80-minute play, under the direction of Anthony Banks (who also helmed the original production in 2010) keep us attentive. But they are too numerous and too loud to allow for the kind of quiet insights about loneliness and isolation that would have special resonance in 2021.