Watching Herding Cats for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a piece of work written as a response to the last 12 months. Aside from reliance on technology, themes of isolation and co-dependency are so prevalent in this production it seems almost prescient to consider Lucinda Coxon wrote the script ten years ago.
Flatmates Michael and Justine, played by Jassa Ahluwalia and Sophie Melville respectively, are struggling in different ways to survive in the modern age. Justine is forced to navigate the daily damaging sexual politics of interning for a privileged male boss, whilst agoraphobiac Michael spends his days cooped up inside, posing as a female chat room host. There is no doubt the extent to which Justine leans on her housemate for support, often "dumping" her day on him, which begs the question: who does Michael depend upon in turn?
The onstage chemistry between Ahluwalia and Melville develops over the course of the production. Whilst exchanges seem a little frantic in opening scenes, by the climax they really build a fluency together on Grace Smart's marvellous set. Huge futuristic panels at the back of the stage frame the friends' conversations, before transforming into a screen as the play's third character enters the action via telephone call.
At first there is an almost perverse humour in watching Michael rinse one of his clients Saddo, played by Greg Germann, for his bank details. Whether it be Michael's pyjamas, pink headset or high pitched American accent, these conversations initially appear unsavoury but highly amusing. Any smiles have long disappeared by the end however, when the extent of their disturbing relationship has become apparent.
This particular dynamic is what excites, and appals, most about Herding Cats. It is to Germann's credit that he is able to imbue a morally repugnant character with such a range of emotions, despite not even physically being in the room. The only blip is a bizarre "Twelve Days of Christmas" singalong around the halfway point. Nightmarish music and contorted facial expressions seem to imply that Christmas is a tortuous experience for some and whilst there is no denying that, it's an awkward way to present the idea.
Streamed from home, the technical experience is flawless and all praise must go to the production team. Much has been spoken about the transcontinental nature of the show, with Germann performing live from the US, but such is the coherence of the spectacle, he could well be speaking his lines in Soho Theatre's dressing rooms. One of the defining elements of post-pandemic society has been a dependence on technology, and Coxon's play is one that shines in this context rather than bending its form to be accommodated.