After the hallucinogenic nightmare that was Cats (2019), critics and audiences alike might have been forgiven for believing that cat-based performance art had had its moment in the sun. Indeed, the past six months have brought so many dramatic changes to our artistic practices, our social lives, our jobs, our homes, and our theatres, that the film that gave us the CGI-bumhole controversy feels as if belongs to a distant, if not golden, then certainly colourful age that has melted into memory. Such unbridled meldings of celebrity, poetry and catastrophe are unlikely to resurge in the post-pandemic world into which we expect to inch. But, over the course of the UK’s lockdown, despite nationwide theatre closures, art has found a way, and shown us new creative possibilities. Over the last few weeks, I have been privileged to be present at an episodic, site-specific production staged by next door’s cats.
The stage is dominated by our garden, a small south-facing plot with a scrubby lawn and a large apple tree. On either side, just within sight, is a) an abandoned garden outside a boarded-up house, home to a family of foxes, and b) a bustling backyard filled with bird feeders, laundry and feline sunbathers. The gardens themselves back on to a wasteland where once stood buildings and now stands desolation. The dramatic backdrop of sky and overgrown wildflowers underlines the contrasting intimate nature of the piece.
In what feels like a deliberate echo of immersive theatre company Punchdrunk’s exploratory ethos, audience members are encouraged to follow their own instincts and build their own stories from the numerous dioramas on offer. However, there are noticeable directorial hints. The protagonist of the piece is undoubtedly the cat we know as Blinky, a bold, skinny white-and-tabby tomcat distinguished by his bright pink collar (no other cat wears one). A muscular, convincing performer brimming with debonair, Blinky’s feints at songbirds and his occasional brawls with the foxes are heralded by the tinkle of his collar – which he has been given, my plus one assures me, for being ‘extra naughty’.
The primary antagonists of the show are the family of foxes. With their 3am ululations, their stealth shitting, and their boorish willingness to attack the cats, the foxes have all the hallmarks of almost cartoonish villainy. But the script is far more nuanced than initial episodes might have us believe. The baby foxes are mostly heard and rarely seen, but when they are seen, they are very small and very cute. Careful assessment of the detailed stage furniture also points towards a more complex moral landscape; the bird feeders next door shiver with feathered life, each passerine pal delicate and lovely and heartbreakingly vulnerable to the cats, many of whom use the apple tree for covetous lurking. We cannot simply choose blinkered devotion to Blinky and the other cats.
Blinky, then, negotiates a fraught and changeable world where loyalties are fickle, and territories are lost and recovered over the course of a single day. The extremist paths that he could take are symbolised by two other cats: haughty, skittish Ginger, a beautiful marmalade-and-cream cat whose craven obsession with the birds and with pissing on our lawn has emptied his little cat eyes of soul; and the melancholic cat we know as Winky, who looks identical to Blinky but with only one eye – a haunted, broken version of a Blinky who lost too many fights and gave too much ground.
Though the play reserves some scintillating set pieces for the toms, there is a regrettable lack of really meaty parts for female performers. Notable roles include that of the cat we call Pretty, a very good-looking silvery tabby whose chief role is sitting on the high fence staring wide-eyed at the wasteland – the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Kitten – and Grey Scrare, a Grizabella-like long-haired stray who we have tried to offer chicken, but who is too terrified of everyone to make friends. (Her piteous dawn wails are one of the most powerful leitmotifs of the piece.) The chorus of three extremely soft-looking black cats adds an oddly eldritch element to an otherwise brutal realist drama; though they are aesthetically delightful, their inclusion does not always feel sensible. Comic relief is provided by the big tabby cat we call Splat, so called because when he sits on the lawn, his whole body looks like a puddle, splat!
The rules of engagement are similar to most non-proscenium forms of theatre – do not attempt to touch the actors, or intervene in their scenes, unless you are expressly invited. (We have been punished more than once, dashing out to stop a cat going to the toilet on the lawn, with the hideous crunch of snail’s shells underfoot – this garden attracts an ungodly number of snails and they function as natural barricades.) Though the guidelines have not been explicitly stated, the fact that every single one of the cats but Blinky will jump back about two metres if we come outside, and visibly hate us when we put out laundry, suggest that we have not yet been invited. But as this ambitious piece continues apace through quarantine we hope to deepen our connection with these furry performers. Indeed, devoted study of Blinky’s storyline has already yielded a thrilling one-on-one performance, worthy of every award still going.
For more reviews of found performances, read Liza Graham’s critique of the Young Vic’s 3am evacuation announcements, or Natasha Tripney’s write-up of The Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings Show