Fifty years ago, the original film Cathy Come Home was made and shown to the British public to expose the state of homelessness at the time. Needless to say, it was ground-breaking and sparked widespread concern and outrage at the services, or lack thereof, that those affected by homelessness could access. It comes as a truly disgusting surprise that the statistics unearthed in the 1960s have not been improved enough to keep up with a quickly growing populace. Led by a wonderful cast of people who have personally experienced homelessness, Cardboard Citizens harnesses the power of theatre and the arts and asks us directly to challenge the current structure of social housing.
We meet Cathy as she runs from a well-respected but unloving family home. Without a clear path ahead, she stumbles across a young man named Reg. Immediately, the pair form a connection and soon begin a relationship together. When they get married, they buy a maisonette which Cathy worries might be out of their price range but Reg assures her that their combined wages will be enough to cover the rent. However, Reg is soon involved in an accident which prevents him from working and as Cathy finds out she is pregnant, the pair decides to downsize. Over the coming years, Cathy and Reg find themselves unable to house their family and they desperately seek out new options for accommodation.
The sense of community and human connection that bursts from the stage is truly awe inspiring. The company in its entirety works wonderfully and the moments of physical theatre, dance and song are hauntingly powerful. While (in other pieces) the use of actors as props and set often results in cringe-worthy shuffling, in Cathy Come Home, it succeeds fantastically in demonstrating that homelessness is essentially a human crisis. The atmosphere of camaraderie is furthered by the use of a handful of narrators who push the plot forward with fantastic energy and real appreciation for the poetry in Jeremy Sandford’s script. Ellé Payne, as the titular Cathy, positively shines, carrying the piece with admirable grace and emotion. The character of Reg, played by Denholm Spurr, contributes a cheeky but soon dwindling joie de vivre which makes the final scenes all the more poignant. A special mention must be made for Gloria Farren whose stage presence in her brief role as Mrs Alley is utterly captivating. As she embarks on her gentle monologue, the audience warms to her good-natured glances and pleasantly brassy voice. Throughout the piece, a subtle soundtrack is provided by Reynaldo Young who, playing the guitar, sends his simple and dreamlike music swirling about the theatre, providing seamless transitions between the scenes and tying the story together beautifully.
After the performance of Cathy Come Home, an onstage panel was led by journalist Samira Ahmed and featured special guest Ken Loach, who directed the original film. Loach speaks about his abhorrence for the structure of social housing with calm disdain and eloquent reasoning. His thought provoking mini-speeches are met with sustained applause from the audience and when Ahmed directs her attention to one of the other panellists, James Murray – Deputy Mayor for Housing – his worryingly dithering answers leave much to be desired. The overarching message from the latest work from Cardboard Citizens is this: the arts are not to be underestimated in their powers to influence people’s mindsets and can spur them on to enact real social change.
Reviewed by Alex Foott