CATHY, STILL NOT HOME AFTER FIFTY YEARS
Homeless charities like to remind us of the mantra: we are all just two bad decisions away from the pavement. The trajectory of our heroine Cathy’s decline is carefully drawn. A zero-hours contract as a cleaner keeps her short of money, rent arrears build up. The owners of the building want to take away her home of ten years anyway, at 14 days notice, so as to rent or sell it to “young professionals”. Affordable private rents are beyond her and the arrears put her at risk of being “voluntarily homeless”. But she has a dependent daughter, Danielle, moving towards her GCSEs, so the Council must help. It does so by sending them to a temporary b & b room in a grubby tower in Luton,. Danielle has to spend £20 a week and on trains in to school and get bullied as a “pikey” by local girls. Cathy has to find another lavatory-cleaning job.
The “temporary” placement stretches to months, until an offer of a 2-bed maisonette comes through. In Gateshead. Cathy panics: when you have very little, your neighbourhood and community are precious, and what about Danielle’s exams next month?. She is told it could be seven years before East London finds her home again. The mechanical, helpless council responses “this is our offer” and “You are at liberty to arrange an alternative” are a blank wall. Sofa-surfing with a sister in Braintree ends sharply; she is now 497th on a list, and fears contact with the Council as Danielle could be taken into care. So to the streets, the night buses, a desperate pick-up, a refuge.
Fifty years after Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s impassioned film about homelessness, the anniversary was marked by the campaigning theatre group Cardboard Citizens with this play, a fictional demonstration – with occasional verbatim recordings – of how clunkingly hopeless our public housing system is. And how woefully underresourced. Two years on, after the horror of Grenfell it returns for an eight week tour. Which is a particularly bitter irony, since if you think about it the council tenants in Grenfell flats were luckier than Cathy: they had flats. The piece has been played f at the House of Lords, where a series of audience suggestions for palliative laws were handed over. Audiences are asked for solutions, public and personal. It is a moving, unsentimental moment.
The strength of Ali Taylor’s play, directed by Adrian Jackson, is that there is enough credible, flawed, troublesome humanity in it to convince. Cathy Owen as the central figure is decent, hardworking, and at first just unlucky, but the streak of stubbornness which keeps her going contributes to her downfall. Ironically, the things which accelerate her fall (apart from lousy national housing policy) are “bad decisions” which might in a wealthier woman be praised as good feisty qualities. She has refused to try and make her estranged gambling ex-husband contribute, and keeps her daughter away from him; she visits her old Dad once a week, backs her daughter’s education with pride, and cherishes her community. Hence the horror at the blank-wall Gateshead offer.
As Danielle, Hayley Wareham is heartbreakingly true to teenage temperament and desperation. as her path to upward social mobility is blocked by the struggle even to get to school; Amy Loughton plays a series of council officers, a Latvian fellow-cleaner, and most movingly a kind Arriva lady at the bus station who lets Cathy use her phone , gives her tea and accepts the night-bus sleepers with gentle resignation. Alex Jones is the men: horribly chirpy rent collector, hopeless father, bullying supervisor.
It is set brilliantly against a set of giant Jenga blocks – which of course look like a council building and which get gradually demolished as Cathy’s life is. It reminds us how sharply urgent is the public housing crisis; but also how crushingly unfair it is, in an age of mass immigration and an overcrowded capital, to disregard the needs of the old white working-class. Needs not only for roofs and safe beds, but for a known neighbourhood and extended family.
It will be a great day when this play no longer needs to tour. But for the moment, it is an essential.
Soho to 14th April, touring to 5 May