Herding Cats, Hampstead Theatre, London

 

Lucinda Coxon's play may be set in the run-up to Christmas but don't go expecting feel-good Yule-tide fare.

Someone has planted razor-blades in the pudding. A three-hander with a calculatedly jagged focus, this is a drama about how we lead such over-worked and emotionally fraught lives that we have time only for the wrong kinds of intimacy, bobbing around in our various bubbles of loneliness.

Anthony Banks's striking production is dominated by a huge white sofa that is rimmed with neon lighting. This design (by Garance Marnier) sets the temperature for a witty, snapping piece that is pretty Arctic and comfortless at its core. Every day, Justine (Olivia Hallinan) comes home from her stressful job in some anonymous office and treats her flat-mate Michael (Philip McGinley) to a tirade of hatred against her ageing ex-hippy boss, Nigel. Methinks the lady doth protest too much and it is no great shock when it turns out that she is rather turned on by him, even if he does represent the generation of recession-proof, dope-smoking, grey-pubes-sporting idlers she feels exploited by.

Michael is in a strangely analogous position. He's an agoraphobic who spends his days working for a telephone-sex company. If Justine feigns contempt for Nigel, Michael affects detachment from his clients. One of them, however, a fiftysomething male, nicknamed Saddo (David Michaels) seems to have broken through his defences. It's Michael's task to pretend to be Saddo's naughty little daughter and gradually to admit to coquettish, cock-teasing misdemeanours that will make Daddy burst with the desire to subject his Princess to perverted punishments. You sense that there is some desperate grief lurking at the bottom of this ritual (acted here with an almost unbearably intense, whispered familiarity) and Coxon acutely dramatises the effect of Michael's attempt to alter the power-game by putting his relatioship with Saddo on a briefly non-commercial footing.

Coxon created one of the biggest gasps I have ever heard at the National Theatre in her play Happy Now,? when a teacher had the temerity to tell a parent/friend that his daughter was not, in fact, gifted. It goes without saying that all middle-class children these days are either gifted or dyslexic. And here she puts her finger on the frustrations of the overwrought and abused younger generation who are paying for the excesses of their baby-boomer seniors. The play is very well-acted and the production is, almost to a fault, clinically clear.

 

To January 7 2012

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