Written for Spoonfed, London Theatre:
Lucinda Coxon’s Herding Cats begins its run next week and its Christmas timing is no coincidence. “Christmas puts everyone under pressure,” she tells me in the comfy cafe at Hampstead Theatre, where the show will run. “Where there are fracture lines, Christmas is going to find you out,” she says with the certainty of experience.
Set during one of the most family-oriented times of the year, Herding Cats looks at a gaggle of adults living in the city whose boundaries between private and public become increasingly complicated. Technology in particular is a route to identity chaos. “We have incredible opportunities to become voyeurs and performers,” Coxon notes in awe of the possibilities: “the world becomes a kind of audience for us. But of course, if you’re a voyeur in your own life, you’re not really living it.”
Herding Cats, which Lyn Gardner aptly called “a sad, truthful nastiness”, follows one such voyeur. Michael never leaves his flat but is in fact quite powerful as he goes about makes a living cruising chatrooms. “He’s making a living pretending to be someone else,” notes Lucinda, “ and one running thread in the play is the way that communications technology has advanced slightly faster than our monkey brains can handle.”
Unwilling to leave his flat, Michael relies on his flatmate Justine (Olivia Hallinan) to bring the outside world in. “He is immersed in different identities in a way that I think we all are to a degree. But at what point does this kind of communication start to be isolating? When does that paradox kick in?”
The paradox Lucinda describes goes hand in hand with urban living. The city, an intricately connected hive of people, can mask the solitary existence of individuals – something Lucinda recalls of her first experiences living in London. “I loved the anonymity of it, the freedom that it brings you. On a good day, you’re the master of your own destiny, on a bad day you are a small person in quite a busy place, and people struggle with that.”
Justine, for example, isn’t invested in the work she allows to take over her life and struggles to find an identity. She is, as Lucinda puts it, “fighting incredibly hard to find a self to be”, and Christmas only complicates things.
The timing contrasts the way the holiday is marketed to the reality of the characters’ lives. “It’s marketed as a time of plenty,” explains Lucinda, “as a time of warmth, as a time when you want to be with your family, but a) not everyone has access to all of that stuff, and b) not everyone wants to be with their family. Some people are miserable when they’re alone at Christmas and some people are miserable because they’re not.”
Herding Cats questions these conflicting identities and the ways they play out in what Lucinda calls “the warrens of communications now available”. And, by looking at the people who can now experience so many things indirectly, it also looks at the way that this proliferation has more than just technological consequences.