On 18 January 2017
Review by James Ballands
It’s been 50 years since Ken Loach’s gritty social realist drama Cathy Come Home (1966) highlighted the problem of homelessness in the UK, alerting the general public to the scale of the housing crisis and the desperate need for change. To celebrate the film and its 25th anniversary as a theatre company, Cardboard Citizens has chosen to stage an updated version of the story that relocates the action from the 1960s to the present day.
Like I, Daniel Blake (2016)—Loach’s most recent film and winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival—Ali Taylor’s play reveals the flaws within the welfare system and how easy it is for people to become homeless. Single mother Cathy (Cathy Owen) lives in a London tower block with her 15-year-old daughter Danielle (Hayley Wareham). To make ends meet she works as a cleaner on a zero-hours contract, but her hours have been cut and she has fallen behind with the rent.
When Cathy is unable to pay her unscrupulous landlord (Alex Jones), she is given less than a week to come up with the money or find alternative accommodation. Despite her misfortunes she receives little sympathy from the housing officer (Amy Loughton) assigned to her case who places the mother and daughter in a cockroach-infested shelter in Luton. From there things get steadily worse, and over the course of 90 minutes we watch in horror as the mother and daughter are forced to endure a series of humiliations, including the indifference of family and friends.
Cathy Owen gives a moving and heartfelt performance as Cathy, capturing the character’s mixture of humour, inner strength and sadness. Hayley Wareham is equally excellent as Cathy's teenage daughter, powerfully conveying Danielle’s mounting frustration with her mother who is unable to provide her with the stable home environment she desperately craves.
The two leads are ably supported by Amy Loughton and Alex Jones, both of whom demonstrate impressive versatility and skill in a range of smaller parts. Loughton is particularly effective as Cathy’s chillingly dispassionate housing officer and Jones is pleasingly despicable as Danielle’s feckless father.
Matt Lewis’s sound design—a blend of traffic noise, indistinct voices and drilling—evokes the impersonality of city living, and Lucy Sierra’s stripped-down set proves highly adaptable at creating a variety of different locations. The enormous Jenga tower that stands on the right-hand side of the stage provides a clear visual metaphor for the precariousness of Cathy’s existence.
In the second half of the evening's performance, the audience is invited to participate in Forum Theatre—a theatrical technique for which Cardboard Citizens is rightly lauded. Audience members are invited to join in the play by stopping the action mid-flow and taking over from Cathy in order to change the outcome of the play. Despite some initial misgivings, this proves to be a fruitful way of engaging with the issues of the play.
Like I, Daniel Blake, Taylor’s play is a compassionate and angry exploration of the way that British society treats many of its most vulnerable people. It manages to stay true to the spirit of Loach’s original film whilst bringing the story up-to-date.