Lucinda Coxon’s Herding Cats is a curious play. I say this because I left feeling somewhat perplexed and  frustrated by it. Somewhere during the 80 minutes of Coxon’s play it lost me. Whilst its narrative – of two housemates whose work puts them in the awkward situation of having to question their relationship, and the thin line between desire and need – is a funny, sinister and a provocative journey, it’s not wholly believable. Perhaps this comes down to Anthony Banks’ direction, or maybe the cast aren’t grasping Coxon’s characters with full force? Whatever the answer, something  did not sit right for me but clearly would work for others.

Herding Cats sees Justine (Olivia Hallinan) exploding into a tirade about a work colleague who she physically can’t stand to be around because of his lewd remarks and provocative suggestions. She vents this anger upon her housemate Michael (Philip McGinley) who listens patiently and nods in all the right places, offering words of encouragement which ultimately fall on deaf ears. There is no changing this anger, it is what it is: annoying. Meanwhile Michael’s day job sees him entering fantasies with various men, each with their own kinks and quirks as his work is at a sex chatline agency. One particular client is nicknamed Saddo (David Michaels) who wants Michael to portray his daughter, which gradually becomes sexually explicit over the phone, describing sexual acts and punishment. Whilst Justine, Michael and Saddo might not appear to have a lot in common at first, it soon becomes apparent the desire for someone to show them love and affection in whatever role playing manner that might be, links them thematically together. Justine sees a relationship forming from the provocative suggestions her work colleague makes at her, whilst Michael and Saddo both find comfort in the fantasy world of the daughter and ‘daddy’ relationship they immerse themselves in.

The play is at times bitterly funny, especially as Hallinan’s Justine packs in line after line of hatred towards herself and her colleague, with it getting increasingly complicated as she begins to believe that she likes him in return. The relationship that is formed through the intimate telephone conversations of Michael and Saddo are at first enjoyable to hear, but soon this dissolves into a chill down the spine as they steadily talk more provoactively and the full extent of what Saddo wants becomes apparent. In the Downstairs Theatre at The Hampstead Theatre these intimate conversations become intensified, it’s just a shame that this isn’t always maintained by Coxon’s switching between scenes and situations.

McGinley’s Michael is immediately loveable as a soothing voice within the production against that of Hallinan’s explosive Justine, but at times there is a need for more dynamic connection to this subtler character. In Garance Marneur’s design, which sees an enlarged white sofa that dominates the stage, McGinley and Hallinan become child size in comparision, especially as McGinley pretends to act out the character of the daughter. It’s a nice touch but it does limit Banks’ direction. Hallinan at times manages to really capture the anger and twisted frustration of Justine, but equally there are moments where I couldn’t help but to see the mechanical acting taking over the lines. Herding Cats seems to be both a joy and a frustration, a half-baked production that has potential if only Banks’ direction and the cast could give way to Coxon’s dark play. David Michael’s Saddo is at least fully-formed and captures a troubled man whose desires get the better of him.

There is much to be found within Herding Cats, I just couldn’t appreciate it but perhaps other audiences will. It’s a well-rounded night, with the play ending at the perfect moment. It won’t challenge you, but it might make you laugh out loud and cringe in all the right places. Dark, sinister and bitterly funny… but also flawed.

Herding Cats is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 7th January 2012. For more information and tickets, see the Hampstead Theatre website. Photo by Simon Annand.