This review was published in January 2017 in the Cuckoo Review here.
Cardboard Citizens is a pioneering theatre company that has been making theatre with and for the homeless for the past twenty-five years. Through workshops, forums and theatre performed on the stage, in the street, in hostels, centres and prisons, the company inspire and involve oppressed members of society in order to further their participation in other cultural pursuits and further their prospects. This year celebrates the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Twenty-five years prior to this, Ken Loach’s (I, Daniel Blake; Kes; Sweet Sixteen) ground-breaking film, Cathy Come Home was released. The film was the first large-scale insight into the housing crisis in the UK and the lives of the homeless. To mark the anniversary of both these events, Cardboard Citizens have produced Cathy (written by Ali Taylor), a re-telling based on Loach’s film, with their characteristic forum theatre incorporated into the show. The play is a harsh reminder that the climate of homelessness that shook the nation in Cathy Come Home has not got any better, and the UK is still full of Cathys.
The play tells Cathy’s tale; her contract at work cut to zero hours, she falls in arrears with her rent, and is evicted instantly by the private landlord who now owns the council estate she’s lived on for ten years. She and her daughter are shipped from temporary accommodation to temporary accommodation, all miles away from their original home. They are offered a place in Gateshead – 300 miles from their home in London, where Cathy’s daughter is due to sit her exams in 2 months. The council officer is clearly aware of how inappropriate this is, as she glibly burbles when Cathy asks whether the NE1 postcode is ‘local’. For the sake of her daughter’s stability, Cathy declines. They’re then off the system’s ‘duty of care’ and labelled ‘intentionally homeless’, so spend months sofa surfing between relatives and men Cathy picks up in pubs. Unable to cope, Cathy’s daughter contacts her estranged father – leaving Cathy hopeless and alone.
It’s heart-breaking stuff that shows how shockingly easy it is for anyone to become homeless when lives nowadays are so precarious – one lost job and they’ve lost the home they had for ten years. The production itself is not mind-blowing, but good, with some strong performances – particularly from Amy Loughton who flits persuasively between a Latvian loo attendant, a council officer, and a bus driver. The highlight however, is the forum theatre that happens after the first half.
With the play over, a host comes on stage and asks us to consider whether Cathy could have avoided the situation she ends up in, and if so, by taking what actions. My friend and I get chatting to two lovely couples behind us, who are shocked by the lack of tenant’s rights and Cathy’s lack of options when it comes to appealing the system’s rough treatment. We wonder whether she should have accepted the Gateshead accommodation, or asked the estranged father for money before she got into arrears with the rent. The actors now re-enact some of the scenes, and members of the audience are invited to jump in and become Cathy – making the right decision where they thought she made the wrong.
A poignant message is driven home – nothing will change if we don’t do anything. Bolder members of the audience take to the stage and do do something, yet often it merely highlights the impossibility and inevitability of Cathy’s situation; without the benefits of hindsight, it could happen to anyone. There’s a particularly insightful moment into parenting, when a female member of the audience decides that Cathy should have accepted the accommodation in Gateshead, and tries to break this news to her daughter. With great acting improvisation from Hayley Wareham, the audience member flounders into lying and false promises. The idea itself is entertaining and funny; the audience participation integrates the whole audience into the context of the performance, and as a result everyone’s reactions become a little bit bolder. There’s a particular moment of sass from a male member of the audience, who fights back against a racist employer at Cathy’s club-night shift. He flings down his apron on the floor.
But the important message underneath the humour is not lost. It’s fascinating to see stable members of the public making the decisions that thousands of people are faced with every day, and experiencing how difficult those decisions are. Cathy is an unnerving view into a society where people are given the option of homelessness or forced relocation hundreds of miles away, totally uprooting their lives one way or the other. The host shares an interesting fact: the majority of homeless people in London, do hold down a steady job, yet it’s insufficient to get them back on the ladder.
It’s a thought-provoking evening, that dispels much ignorance towards the housing crisis in the UK and the system’s poor response. At the end, the cast are scribes, drawing a list of reform points they will put to parliament from suggestions the audience shout out. We leave with eyes wide open. Cathy is touring across the UK, if you can, get down to a show and educate yourself.