How far are you from homelessness? How much would have to go wrong in your life? Then again, would anything have to go wrong at all, other than your landlord using the exorbitant amounts others charge for similar properties as an excuse to put up your rent? This is the situation of Cathy, who’s been in the same flat for years with a teenage daughter whose father doesn’t contribute. The landlady is usually understanding if she falls a bit behind with the rent, but now her son’s taken over the business and it’s a brave new world out there…
Soon Cathy and Danielle are in emergency accommodation in Luton, miles from Danielle’s school and Cathy’s three jobs, from which the next step is to find temporary and finally permanent accommodation. But the latter is hard to come by, being based on a points system based on perceived need, and Cathy will drop further down the list when Danielle turns 16 and is no longer a “dependent child”. They turn to sofa surfing, but how long will Cathy’s estranged sister and her husband put up with them?
The play is of course based on Ken Loach’s influential 1966 film Cathy Come Home, which Ali Taylor has updated not just cosmetically but to reflect the modern state bureacracy faced by those with housing needs. At every stage, the council makes an “offer” which Cathy must either accept, no matter how unreasonable, or be deemed to have made herself “intentionally homeless” and therefore no longer their problem. The play is very strong in revealing the “hidden homelessness” of temporary, insecure accomodation as well as the people we see on the streets.
An issue play, no doubt, and if it feels relentless and overpowering, that’s surely the point – people in this situation don’t get to think about it just once in a while. Lucy Sierra’s set resembles a giant Jenga tower which gradually falls apart as things get worse for the two protagonists. Kudos to Amy Loughton and Alex Jones for their skill in the various roles they undertake, but the highest praise must go to Cathy Owen and Hayley Wareham as Cathy and Danielle, astonishingly real performances that have only got better during the life this play has already had, from Edinburgh to the House of Lords to the Labour Party conference. Praise too to the invaluable Cardbord Citizens for conceiving the project in the first place.
Art that tackles social issues is always vulnerable to the charge of fiddling while Rome burns – what difference can a play possibly make? Well perhaps quite a lot, judging by the amount I learned from it, and I somehow doubt the Peers of the Realm came to it knowing any more about homelessness than I did. But even more importantly, it has already resulted in the so-called “Cathy Laws”, based on audience suggestions as to what could be done about homelessness and presented to MPs in 2017. The ball is now firmly in their court.