Two stray cats looking for solace in a cold city. Andrew Fuhrmann reviews an Australian premiere
Despite its innocent-sounding name British playwright Lucinda Coxon's Herding Cats is a very weird bag -- weird, but nonetheless affecting.
It starts out as an airy laugh, with Justine and Michael, two late-twenty-somethings, flatmates, in their livingroom hashing over life and work. She's a near-alcoholic office worker whose boss is an idiot ex-hippy; he's a phone sex operator who never leaves the house. In fact, the story, such as it is, doesn't develop much beyond this bare set up, but at an emotional level it completely transforms -- from brisk comedy to chilly existential parable.
Paul Ashcroft and Ngaire Dawn Fair as the flatmates do brilliantly well with what must have been confronting and confusing roles. As likeable as these characters are, initially, they're also crippled by an essential moral ambivalence. Michael, for instance, is a gentle soul, a terrific listener and sensitive to the comfort of others. But we also see a pale streak of cruelty and selfishness emerge. He is damaged and he causes damage. Ashcroft is subtle yet provoking in his portrayal. Justine, too, though in some ways more straightforward, with more familiar anxieties -- around class, sex, love, status, purpose -- is given vivid psychological colour by Fair: brassy yet vulnerable. It is far-and-away her best performance with Red Stitch.
Dion Mills is likewise compelling as a shadowy client of Michael's -- perhaps his best client -- who acts out sadistic father-daughter fantasies, but who is in some deperate and obscure way victimised by Michael.
Suzanne Chaundy's direction is persuasive, with a keen ear for the pathos-as-alienation that gives this story its engrossing power. Except for a lurid Christmas-themed interlude that somehow seems beside the point, everything in this impressive Australian premiere seems of a piece with Coxon's unusual, hyper-extension of human feeling, delivering on both the madness and the sadness of her portrait of life in a cold city.
It's a wonderful 'get' for Red Stitch, a novel piece of anti-romantic theatre, which in this production suggests -- seductively -- a brutal yet honest kind of anti-humanism, with strong echoes of Martin Crimp and Edward Bond. It's sad, sordid, fascinating and funny, although one always feels the laughter here conceals unknown terrors. Highly recommended.