Let’s talk about homelessness and housing in the UK
“Don’t take for granted the roof over your head” is one of the take-home messages from Cardboard Citizens’ production of Cathy, by the artistic director of Cardboard Citizens, Adrian Jackson, and writer, Ali Taylor. Last Wednesday, between leaving my Southwark office and arriving for the press night of Cathy at the Soho Theatre, I saw at least five people living rough on the streets of London. They were either asking for spare change or sleeping on top of cardboard boxes. According to the charity, Shelter, they estimate 307,000 people are homeless or living in inadequate housing (based on studies published in November 2017).
Cathy is based on the 1966 film, Cathy Come Home. Two years ago, the BBC celebrated its 50th anniversary screening of the landmark film. It seems that the homeless crisis continues in the UK as it did in the 1960s, in fact, it may appear to be getting worse. Since 2016 the show has been on tour sharing an important message and worthy cause. Cathy presents the reality of homelessness and housing in the UK through real life events and fictional characters.
It first hit the stage at the Pleasance theatre in 2016. It moved to 25 cities and was performed at day centres, hostels and prisons. By 2017 Cardboard Citizen was invited to perform at the House of Lords, coinciding with the second reading of the Homelessness Reduction Bill, and more than 2000 people saw the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which received many five-star reviews. The devastating events at Grenfell Tower called for Cardboard Citizens to perform for the Grenfell community and in front of a Labour Party Conference. Without question, Cardboard Citizens are aiming to steam through the walls of politics with the view of seeing their Cathy Laws (a compilation of five legislative measures on housing and homelessness, created by audiences who saw the show in 2016) implemented to improve the current situation.
The show proves how easy becoming Cathy can be – it can happen to anyone. There’s a misconception that homelessness only applies to a certain group of people, such as drug and alcohol addicts, runaways, or people who are dependent on benefit schemes and so forth. Yet anyone who thinks this are wrong as the play shows. If you have seen the film, then you’ll see a more current setting on stage, but that’s the only difference. The negative consequences and detrimental effect homelessness have on people, including the downward spiral towards depression, remain the same.
Cathy, performed by Cathy Owen, is a mother caught up in a restrictive system, which leaves her homeless and destroys her fragile relationship with her daughter, Danielle, played by Hayley Wareham. The show follows Cathy and Danielle on their relentless and hopeless journey to finding a home; confrontational meetings with unsympathetic housing officers, cutthroat landlords, insensitive employers and unsupportive family members. Amy Loughton and Alex Jones perform these multiple roles in quick succession, which make the process of eviction to homelessness happen very quickly. The show’s actual timeline ranges from a few months to a year. For some people homelessness can happen almost instantly.
Jackson and the production’s designer, Lucy Sierra, decided to have all props and cast on stage. Human size blocks, set up like the game of Jenga, are solid at the start; tall, stacked together and stable. Yet as the show goes on, the blocks crumble and that’s when Wareham (performing Daniell) knocks them down. It symbolises the fragile effect homelessness has on the mind and its debilitating impact on both mother and daughter. The cast quickly changes into their new clothes for the next role and adjust the setting with the wooden blocks, chairs and tables. Within seconds one scene can move from a housing meeting to a breakfast table at a greasy spoon cafe. Additionally, documentary clips of homeless people, expressing their day-to-day experiences, are projected onto these Jenga blocks when the cast are swiftly changing the scene.
Cardboard Citizens and its excellent cast, as well as the research support from Shelter, bring the severe situation of housing and homelessness to the forefront, while some MPs have placed them at the bottom of their political agendas. The production gives the audience something to think about at the end of the show including the chance for them to come up with practical ideas on how they can help people under these circumstances. On the evening I attended, some members of the audience suggested offering cereal bars and foil blankets to the homeless, while others proposed we change our attitude towards them and inform them of the Care Act.
These are small acts, but they all add up. Homelessness won’t be abolished overnight, but small actions like these raise awareness of subjects which we should be talking about. It affects us all. We need to help each other and start voicing our ideas. Tell your friends to see Cathy!
Cathy is showing at the Soho Theatre until April 14. Go to the Soho Theatre website to purchase tickets (here).
For more information about Cardboard Citizens and the Cathy tour dates for Cornwall, Windsor, Glasgow, Cardiff, Swansea, London’s Albany and other locations, click here.
(I was given a press ticket to review the show by the PR company.)