The after shocks from the broadcast back in 1966 of Cathy Come Home can be detected in most contemporary docudramas. Watched by one quarter of the population, the impact of Cathy was, I am told, seismic. Ken Loach’s film made people angry about the housing crisis and galvanised organisations and politicians to bring about social change.
In 2016, marking the film’s 50th anniversary, Cathy has been reworked and reborn by award winning playwright Ali Taylor and Artistic Director Adrian Jackson, CEO of the homeless charity Cardboard Citizens, in its 25th year of thought-provoking theatre-making.
Loach’s film only provides a loose basis for this updated version but unavoidable poverty, an underfunded, remorseless housing system and ultimately the social marginalisation of society’s most vulnerable, continue to remain at the forefront of this strikingly recognisable, fictional tale.
The result is a well-crafted forum play, in which during the first half we follow diligent, single mother Cathy (Cathy Owen) and her spirited yet increasingly overwhelmed fifteen year old daughter Danielle (Hayley Wareham) as they become victims to London’s housing crisis.
We witness their eviction, relocation and eventually separation due to the instability of Cathy’s zero-hour contracts, spiralling rent prices, rapacious landlord (Alex Jones) and the lack of local emergency social housing. We watch how she is knocked-down from bold and busy provider for her daughter to despairing sofa-surfer and finally street-sleeper. Giant Jenga blocks are built up, balanced and bulldozed; a metaphor for the women’s world literally tumbling down around them. Matt Lewis’ soundscape provides rumblings of the city and Cathy’s eighteen month journey is punctuated by powerful real-life visions and voices of those who the state has failed to provide with a home, projected onto the blocks.
The mother-daughter relationship is Cathy's core focus, tugging at our heartstrings during the final scene when the pair are reunited. Owen as the protagonist is exceptional, her execution raw and untamed. Hayley Warham as Danielle is also a considerable presence. Amy Loughton’s acute performance of several female characters cannot go unmentioned as she shifts from one to another with expertise.
Following the showing and a short break, a discussion ensues, hosted remarkably by Terry O’Leary, in which the play begins again and audience members are invited to press pause and suggest alternative pathways for Cathy, getting out of their seats and joining in the action. This makes for some savvy improvisation from the cast and passionate debate from their audience. Cathy’s life choices are brought into question but inevitably it is collectively agreed her downward spiral roots back to a systemic problem as members of the audience call for more houses to be built, the introduction of rent control and the abolition of property exploitation by the free market.
Half a century later, it is not a case that Britain’s housing crisis has moved steps forward or steps back, more like a step to the side. The picture is different, but we are as far away from the solution as we ever were. Cathy the play does well in its genius and creativity to bring our attention to this urgent political issue in its endeavour to share knowledge, power and hope.
Cathy was at Nottingham Playhouse Tuesday 18 and Wednesday 19 October 2016.