If anyone ever says to you that Art never changed anything tell them about Cathy Come Home, the story of a young idealistic couple, Cathy and Reg, and their descent into poverty and homelessness when their luck runs out. I was only eight years old in 1966 when Ken Loach’s film was first broadcast to a stunned nation as one of the BBC Wednesday plays but I still remember vividly the final scene where Cathy’s children were taken away. It has been voted the best single TV drama ever made by viewers in 1998 and best television programme ever made by an industry poll in 2000. It led to national outrage and pity at a time when television really mattered and gathered large audiences and the foundation of Shelter, a national charity which is still doing fine work today.
Cardboard Citizens is a theatre company that brings theatre to people who are usually excluded from it. They perform in the street and in hostels, centres and prisons as well as in theatres. Homelessness is a major issue in today’s Britain just as it was in the sixties and it is a natural, even obvious, subject for them. With Ken Loach’s blessing they have remade Cathy Come Home and it is being taken on tour later this year. Each performance will be followed by a forum discussion. Last night it was performed at the Barbican centre in London and streamed live on line and I was lucky enough to find out about it in time to watch. All the cast are, or have been, homeless. It is community theatre at its best, doing just what it should be doing, and it brought back memories of the projects that the Grassmarket Project staged with the homeless of the Grassmarket at the Edinburgh festival. I was heavily involved in community theatre when I was younger and I know from experience how it can change the lives of the performers as well as energise and move those watching.- it certainly changed mine. When done well it is powerful and heartfelt with high standards and great commitment from the amateur performers, led by a professional team.
The new staging of Cathy is simple, direct and very moving. A cast of 22 tell the story with great concentration and discipline using only institutional metal and wood chairs and raincoats which become a variety of things- tenement washing for example, tarpaulin or babes in arms. There is a heartbreaking moment when Cathy’s mother in law refuses to take in her grandchild and the child which Cathy has been carrying with such care disintegrates into an overcoat in her mother in law’s arms. Short scenes and narration follow on from one another quickly and with so many people on stage it is a complex job to make sure that every chair, every person and every line is in the right place at the right time. This is a great tribute to the director Adrian Jackson and to the dedication and concentration of the cast. It’s a lot harder to get right than it looks. As the story of the disintegration of Cathy’s family is told we are also shown statistics on a screen behind the performers and simple childlike line drawing underscoring what is happening, documenting the family as it gets smaller and smaller until Cathy is left alone. There are some hard hitting lines too.
“Many social workers feel that hostel families are problem families, well they may not be problem families when they arrive but they certainly are when they leave.”
The central couple, Cathy and Reg, are beautifully played, with great truth and honesty by Elle Payne and Denholm Spurr. Cathy herself is a fine part that would challenge an experienced actress and Elle Payne was terrific. Cardboard Citizens must have been thrilled to find her and if playing Cathy has not changed both her and her future I shall be very surprised. The whole company showed great discipline and commitment, especially in the sequences where emotion was shown in movement and songs. Stand By Me in particular was a wonderful choice.
The discussion after the play was passionate and interesting. It was chaired by Samira Ahmed and featured Shelter’s chief executive Campbell Robb, Ken Loach, Mercury prize nominated musician Eska Mtungwazi, Adrian Jackson the artistic director of Cardboard citizens and the London deputy mayor for housing James Murray. Ken Loach was very forthright, as ever, declaring that “we have a government that is bent on cruelty to the poor” and wondering whether, given the popularity of programmes like Benefit Street, Cathy’s story might find a rather different reaction today. Campbell Robb pointed out that Shelter are still dealing with stories like Cathy’s every single working day. One thing is for sure, homelessness is an intractable problem and it needs a big vision and joined up thinking if it is to be eased, never mind solved, something else that Ken Loach was determined to point out. Let’s hope that London’s new deputy mayor for housing, who seemed well meaning and committed to the job, takes that message back to his office with him.