With the rapid growth of online theatre, playmakers have had to become ever more inventive about ways of presenting their material in order to stand out from the crowd. It no longer seems sufficient to simply point a camera(s) at the action and press record. Thus, there have been examples of live streaming, recorded live streaming, film mixed into Zoom broadcasts, multiple choice pathways through a narrative, 360 degree choose your own angle recordings, interactive/immersive experiences, multi device broadcasts and any number of USP oriented ideas to stimulate and retain interest.
Now we have a play that is badged as a hybrid transatlantic stream in the shape of Herding Cats. This repurposed play from the pen of Lucinda Coxon is actually ten years old, but the current production has taken advantage of the advances in technology to give an added dimension to proceedings. While two of the cast are live onstage at the Soho Theatre, the third beams in his contribution by video from Los Angeles. The result can be seen in situ or, via streaming, at home. This makes for an intriguing but slightly curious beast.
As the play starts it looks like Justine is going to be the central character. In an almost breathless tirade to her flatmate Michael, she puts away her shopping while relating her stressful problems at work and specifically the difficulties she is having with the unsavoury Nigel. Michael supportively listens throwing in the odd monosyllable; he seems sympathetic and empathetic towards his friend. It becomes apparent that the (possibly) ME suffering agoraphobic never leaves the flat.
We also discover that Michael is not just Michael; he is also Juliet an online presence who explores various sexual fetishes with a group of clients among them one he labels as Saddo. The pleasant young man is slowly but surely revealed as manipulative and a user involving his unwitting flatmate in his grubby online life. Justine meanwhile develops a drink habit and an unhealthy obsession with the odious Nigel to the point where her life starts to spiral out of control and Saddo is revealed as a sadistic fantasist. Despite their apparently supportive connections with each other the trio enable each other’s shortcomings through a system of co-dependency which leaves them all worse off.
Although there is a degree of humour in the play they are basically not very nice people (Saddo is particularly unlikeable) such that it is hard to make a sustained connection with any of them. Given that, the three actors do a good job to sustain interest and engagement. Jassa Ahluwalia as Michael has the trickiest job flipping between Michael and alter ego Juliet; I was convinced at first that he was lip synching to a recording for the latter. Ahluwalia makes him softly spoken and deliberately underpowered making the manipulation more shocking.
Sophie Melville makes a convincing job of Justine’s naivety; she simply cannot see (or at least refuses to acknowledge) how she is being systematically abused at work and at home and turns to a type of self-abuse to complete the circle. Her early scenes are full of energy and are contrasted well with the later ones where she is falling apart – she also has most of the stinging one liners. Greg Germann delivers his lines across the ether, but these scenes seem to lack pace; that’s almost certainly down to the distancing technological time lag which puts him thousands of miles away from his fellow actors.
Does this USP add much? In truth not a great deal. While it provides a suitably appropriate platform on which to comment about living a life online, German could just as easily be an actor in another room at the venue or have pre-recorded his contributions to be played in as inserts. It may also work better if you are an audience member at the venue but sitting at home watching a screen containing someone on a screen just begins to make the exercise look remote and rather sterile. However, as a warning that we all need to make proper connections with our fellow humans rather than become ever more isolated it certainly hits the mark. In that respect this is a timely revival from the Soho Theatre who have pushed back the barriers to find another new way to innovate. Although Herding Cats is only having a brief run of live streams now, it will be back in June as a recorded on demand piece.