Touring – reviewed at Soho Theatre, London
Guest reviewer: Beatrix Swanson Scott
In 1966, Ken Loach and Jeremy Sandford made Cathy Come Home, a BBC television film about a young working-class woman’s descent into poverty and homelessness that changed attitudes towards housing and benefits in Britain.
Fifty years later, to commemorate its own 25th birthday celebrations, theatre company Cardboard Citizens created Cathy, a play inspired by the film, drawing on verbatim testimony to look at what a modern-day Cathy’s story might be. They toured the play around the country, gathering suggestions for housing laws they’d like to see enforced from their audience members and presenting the top suggestions to the House of Lords when they performed there. Sadly and unsurprisingly, the play remains just as timely a year later, and thus it has come to the Soho Theatre for a four-week run.
Cathy, single mother to 15-year-old Danielle, works three jobs as a cleaner and nightclub attendant. Even with housing benefit, she constantly falls into arrears with her rent. When most of the flats on the estate where she has lived her whole life were bought up by property firm Stereo Estates, she was lucky – her kindly landlord used to allow her to pay late.
Now the son has taken over the company, Cathy has two weeks to pay or get out. Inevitably, she can’t, and thus begins a tragic cycle of moving from place to place, struggling to deal with the overstretched authorities, asking for money from estranged family members and trying everything to keep off the streets. Cathy does her best to get her daughter a good night’s sleep every night before school – she’s about to take her GSCEs – but having a teenage daughter is difficult enough when you’re not facing sleeping rough.
This production excels on many fronts. The floor-level stage in the Soho’s simple studio-style main space is set with a few chairs, a few props along the edges and, more interestingly, a giant Jenga set. Throughout the play, the Jenga tower is slowly taken apart by the cast, who create abstract but effective multipurpose scenery – benches, beds, tables, walls – from the blocks during scene changes.
This dynamism is also present in the great performances given across the board – Cathy Owen as Cathy is heartbreakingly truthful and extremely watchable, Hayley Wareham as Danielle is perfectly believable as a young girl dealing with a highly precarious living situation whilst still trying to be a teenager, Alex Jones as ‘all male roles’ is old-fashioned, tough East End masculinity in all its tragic forms. However, it is Amy Loughton as ‘all other female roles’, which include everything from a disparaging Welsh bed-and-breakfast owner to a sparky Latvian bathroom attendant, who amazes with her exceptional versatility.
The cast seems truly invested in telling this very important story, which makes it all the more gut-wrenching for the audience to watch. When asked in the brief post-show discussion to shout out words that described their current emotional state, audience members readily called out ‘angry’, ‘ashamed’ and ‘devastated’, to name a few. However, the evening ended on a more hopeful note, as the audience were asked to come up with ways in which they as individuals could do something to help. We were also informed of CitizensDo, Carboard Citizens’ new movement to inspire this change.
I was reminded that one of the things that makes theatre special as an art form is that is has a way of making us see and care about societal problems that we might otherwise miss or ignore. Most of the audience has probably passed several homeless individuals on the way to the theatre, and yet would never feel their plight as deeply as they now felt Cathy’s. As writer Ali Taylor rightly begins his programme notes, ‘there are thousands of Cathys in this country’ – we can only hope that, to its audiences, this play will be the impetus to help them.