In 1966, the BBC broadcast Ken Loach’s seminal Cathy Come Home, a drama that shook the nation, altering people’s perceptions of homelessness. More than fifty years on, Ali Taylor’s powerful play Cathy reminds us that the state of housing is still a very sore issue and it draws on deeply researched real-life experience to imagine how a modern Cathy would fare in the current climate.
The piece was commissioned by Cardboard Citizens, the company that makes theatre with and for homeless people, and it is one of their most galvanising shows. I have never felt so viscerally how easy it can be for people to fall in the homeless trap.
In Adrian Jackson’s excellent production, this insecurity is symbolised by a large Jenga block. As well as providing a screen for the interview footage of up-to-the minutes testimonies, this structure shows how something that seems so solid can in fact be highly precarious. It doesn’t take the removal of many pieces for the whole edifice to fall in on itself.
Cathy Owen gives a stunningly good.performance as Cathy. Humorous, nobody’s fool, and proud of the fact that she has always been able to pay her way, she juggles three jobs as a cleaner. Her fifteen year old daughter Danielle (spot-on Hayley Wareham) is only months away from GCSEs and her confused father is in a nursing home round the corner. But now she’s on zero hours contracts and when gets a few weeks behind with the rent, the new landlord – the nephew of the friendly old lady with whom she’s dealt before – sees it as the perfect opportunity to evict Cathy from her longstanding East End flat and move in considerably more profitable tenants.
Mother and daughter are then pitched into a bewildering tangle of impersonal officialdom, the short, sharp scenes heightened by the fact that Amy Loughton and Alex Jones pungently play all the other characters. This is a crusading piece and does not pretend to be even-handed but the opposition, though presented as cold, is never crudely caricatured. No emergency accommodation can be found for them within the borough, so the pair are relocated to a bedsit in a dismal property in Luton where the local girls bully Hayley for being, as they take it, one of the “scrounging” immigrants they associate with the house. The two of them are stuck there for months.
It’s as if the intricate support groups that make life feasible, and the fact that people have dependents, no longer carries any weight for the geniuses who think that a two-bedroom maisonette in Newcastle will be the solution to Cathy’s problem. There’s a terrible catch in all this: if you refuse an offer, you can be deemed “intentionally homeless” and the council will relinquish its duty of care. But if there is a minor involved, as there is in Cathy’s case, then there is perceived obligation to pass the file on to Social Services. “We cannot allow a fifteen-year-old to sleep rough on the streets,” one official observes.
Owen movingly suggests the central character’s fierce love for her daughter, her pride in the girl’s schooling and her determined, heartbreaking hope. The strains in the mother-daughter relationship are achingly signalled by the actresses, especially when desperation reduces her to making an appeal to the girl’s feckless gambler father who has reluctant temporary room for one of them. Every setback feels like a body blow. The descent is utterly convincing and with no trace of melodrama.
At Soho Theatre, Cathy is being performed as a standalone piece. It then goes on tour to Glasgow Cardiff, Milford Haven, Aberyswyth and the Albany, London, when the proceedings will continue after an interval with the cast improvising on audience suggestions as to how the characters might have dealt with the situation differently. But however experienced, this excellent show leaves you buzzing with thoughts about how a terrible system can be improved.
Until April 14 (sohotheatre.com)