Herding Cats | Red Stitch Actors TheatreLeft – Paul Ashcroft & Dion Mills. Cover – Paul Ashcroft & Ngaire Dawn Fair. Photos – Jodie Hutchinson

UK playwright Lucinda Coxon's Herding Cats has received a lot of attention. The title is an expression with vague origins in IT, referring to the difficulties of managing other people, or even life. Suzanne Chaundy directs Red Stitch ensemble members Ngaire Dawn Fair as London girl Justine, Paul Ashcroft as her flatmate Michael, and Dion Mills as his phone sex client, Saddo.

Justine has landed her dream job and when she comes home, delivers lively performances for Michael based on the details of her working day. It took me a while to not be distracted by Justine's accent, and her initial stagily comic delivery spoke of a different style of play to come; she almost touches on Ab Fab's Eddie. Despite her wit (a drink of 'oblivion-and-tonic', anyone?) and comic delivery, and, although the theme of the play is about how one hides one's vulnerability, the relentlessness of Justine's performing of herself and the blank acceptingness of Michael in the role of her audience, renders them too stylised, their characters too lacking in chiaroscuro to make the final scene ring true.

The abstracted Christmas scene in the middle of the play with its decomposing soundtrack is a notably imaginative and effective touch. Dion Mills's performance as Saddo is the best thing about the production (and the only truly 'edgy' element of a play touting itself as illustrating contemporary society's brutality) – his Saddo is layered and complex, a sinister presence, and his Scottish accent is convincing. Mills has a particularly graceful physicality, he's a consistently mesmerising performer with a compelling stage presence who brings here a mastery to the character we know least about. Sadly, I struggled to hear much of the telephone conversations between Saddo and Michael, and probably missed a lot.

You can see how things will play out for Justine's affair, more intriguing is what the two flatmates may mean to each other and how their alleged co-dependence will eventually manifest, but the play doesn't pursue this line. The most dramatically absorbing moment is when the friendship between Michael and Justine appears threatened and he talks about leaving. This is where things could have become unpredictable but Michael rewinds once Justine reveals how much she needs him. The play falls flat through lack of real psychological conflict: Justine challenges Michael about why he would continue colluding with Saddo's malevolent and incestuous fantasies (what I wanted to know more about) but the play doesn't really explore this question. Another, earlier, charged moment is when Justine reveals to Michael that she's told her boss about him, that Michael has had an accident or is agorophobic or some such, so needs to work from home. Michael gets briefly angry – then, again, retracts. The action is confined to their small lounge room, the true story ought to sprial down to what occurs within the relationship between these two, yet their fantasy connections with the outside world (Justine's boss and Saddo) are given the most weight. 

Herding Cats has been nominated for a UK Theatre Best New Play Award. Despite Red Stitch's elegant production, I'm not convinced.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre presents
Herding Cats        
by Lucinda Coxon

Directed by Suzanne Chaundy

Venue: Red Stitch Theatre | Rear 2, Chapel St, St Kilda
Dates: 7 June – 6 July
Tickets: $27.00 - $39.00 ($20.00 student, $15.00 rush)
Bookings: www.redstitch.net | 03 9533 8083

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