Review: Herding Cats at Hope Mill Theatre

Pic Shay Rowan
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Lucinda Coxon’s Herding Cats is an energetic and provocative piece of theatre which cleverly uses a cast of just three people to explore the nature of modern loneliness.

The title comes from a call-out early in the play, as office worker Justine (Kayleigh Hawkins) comes home ranting about her incompetent new boss. “It’s like herding f***king cats!” she says. It’s a situation so many of us have been in – stressed-out by a colleague or acquaintance, when all we want to do is get on with our lives.

There to listen to is her flatmate Michael (Daniel Bradford), a man who struggles to leave the house and makes a living offering phone sex to other men such as Saddo, the third person in the play, played in a great display of unrestrained desperation by John Gully.

Coxon’s production allows us to watch the complicated, even cruel, nature of relationships unfold before us. Justine becomes increasingly worn down by the long hours of her job, leaving and returning home in the dark, obsessing more and more about her ex-hippy boss. As she hits the bottle, Michael is hitting up the phone, taking calls from Saddo which involve sick fantasies about his own daughter. These calls take place in front of us.

This is a daring production, but well-coordinated, performed in a thrust theatre arrangement where the audience surrounds the floor stage on three sides, allowing us to see intimacies unravelling. Justine begins to reveal much more than just contempt for her bumbling boss, whilst Michael realises that he doesn’t just get a kick out of Saddo’s calls. Does he actually miss him?

Pic Shay Rowan

The connections we have to each other are often complicated and strange. Herding Cats hits hard in its exploration of the relationships we clutch on to in an attempt to avoid the routine of our daily lives.

Characters pace, pound and provocatively position themselves across the floor of Hope Mill’s Theatre, making the most of space and showing the pent-up emotions we often hide. This is a sign of skilled directorship from Lawrence Evans, along with fully-immersed, energetic acting, especially from Kayleigh Hawkins, who jumps, skips and swears across the stage.

Some may find Herding Cats a difficult watch as the three characters dissect the dullness of modern life, by bringing the strange nature of our relationships into the light.  Michael makes Justine wear a T-shirt so he can take ‘special pictures’ whilst Justine cries when a woman is kind to her in a pub.

The stripped back set, under the stage management of Sarah Greenwood and designer Elizabeth Wright, allows the emotional connections between the characters to be enhanced.

I particularly liked how a lot of the interaction occurs around a single sofa, where Michael perches, laptop open and phone in-hand, with an array of emotions etched into his face – testament to Daniel Bradford’s ability to get into character.

It’s an intense hour and a half watch, with no interval, which helps to intensify the viewing experience, and one of the most thought-provoking plays you’ll see in Manchester this year.

Hope Mill Theatre is a gem of a location which allows for an atmospheric walk back to the city centre and time to reflect on how this strange tale may have more similarities with your own life than you first thought.

Hope Mill Theatre until June 3 2017.

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