Herding Cats, Hope Mill Theatre, May 25 2017.
Billed only as a black comedy that depicts the dark humour of loneliness, little could have prepared audiences for some of the extremes that Herding Cats would go to to demonstrate the depths to which a lonely life can take you. Justine (Kayleigh Hawkins) turns to the first man to show any interest in her, despite her originally scathing opinion of him. Saddo (John Gully) reverts to twisted sexual fantasies to get over the loss of his wife and child. And Michael (Daniel Bradford), as well as being the conduit between these two stories, degrades himself by acting as a small child on a sex line just so he can have some contact with the outside world that he has been terrified of since an unnamed attack left him agoraphobic. If Lucinda Coxon’s play deserves props for one particular element, it would have to be the way it portrays the desperation of isolation.
There are also some very good performances in this adaptation by the Playing with Fire Theatre Company. If Hawkins’s Justine at first seems a little overblown and ridiculous, you do soon come to realise that this is more to do with the character in question than the actress in the role. Gully is convincing as the depraved but depressed Saddo, and it is a testament to the actor that despite the disturbing behaviour of the character you do find yourself searching for the reasons behind his perversion. And Bradford is very impressive in the role of Michael, both as the supportive and sarcastic friend and as the sex line worker who is desperate to be lavished with attention.
The problems with the play do not, on the whole, come from the performances or the central theme. But there are some inescapable problems. Perhaps most obvious of all (and the least problematic) is that there is not much in the play that provokes any empathy for the central characters. None of them feel particularly likeable. Justine is especially difficult to relate to and her self-obsessed traits make her an unenjoyable watch at times. Her story arch is also extremely predictable. While more reasons to sympathise with the other two characters are hinted at, the playwright’s decision to leave them at arms length means there is never really enough of a reason to justify their behaviour.
Most problematic of all, for this reviewer at least, was the ways in which the play attempts to get its guffaws from the audience. The hints of Saddo’s sexual obsession with his daughter and possible suggestions of child abuse are often played for laughs, and this leads to more than a few uncomfortable moments. These are topics that needed to be more widely discussed and the arts is a primary arena for such discussion, but Herding Cats seemed to lack the sensitivity needed for dealing with such subjects. That such issues were used either for laughs, or simply to show how low loneliness can take you, seems a little throwaway and glib. It was hard to see past such a treatment of the subject. Other members of the audiences seemed more on board with the humour however, and there were moments that rose above this disappointing side to show a tender portrayal of lives on the precipice. But sadly those moments were a little too rare. As they have done since they opened, though, Hope Mill Theatre showed once again that they are willing to take on daring and different works, and for this they should receive praise.