Ken Loach’s groundbreaking television drama Cathy Come Home was voted the best single television drama of all time by Radio Times readers. It was discussed in parliament and provoked nationwide concern about homelessness.
More than half a century after it was first broadcast, playwright Ali Taylor’s Cathy has taken inspiration from the original and drawn on real-life experiences, to imagine how the titular character would fare today. And it’s not giving anything away to say that it’s not a heartening picture.
Cathy Owen gives a heartfelt performance in the lead role, displaying a subtly rendered gamut of emotions as a mother and her 15-year-old daughter (the equally moving Hayley Wareham) are slowly submerged in a Kafka-esque system meant to help people like them.
Each downward step is a gut punch. She works hard – juggling several low-paid jobs, but on precarious zero-hour contracts. When she falls into arrears on her rent, it’s impossible to catch up, try as she might. Her new landlord sees this as an opportunity to move in much more profitable, non-benefit tenants and orders them out.
The welfare system that they fall into is impersonal, judgemental and demeaning, and reacting to the injustices only makes them live up to society’s long-held prejudices. Anger is your worst enemy.
This is visceral, documentary-like theatre, perfectly pitched. It’s affecting and sympathetic without resorting to melodrama or mawkishness. The characters are sharply drawn and realistic, with no hint of caricature. It would be easy for such a piece to become patronising, but it never comes close to condescension.
That’s probably down to director Adrian Jackson. His company, Cardboard Citizens, make theatre for and with the homeless community. And that close relationship to the subject matter shows in this delicately tuned production.
The politics and the play are inseparable. It’s unabashedly partisan and pulls no punches, which is not to its detriment. Indeed, it’s what gives it power – putting flesh and voice to lived experiences. Effective use of video and first-person testimonies grounds the theatrical portrayals.
At Soho Theatre the play is being performed as a standalone piece, but for the remainder of the tour all shows will be performed – as it was during its original run at Edinburgh Festival – in the seldom seen style of Forum Theatre. After the interval, the proceedings of the first half are revived, with members of the audience given the opportunity to suggest different ways in which the characters might deal with their situations. These are then improvised and played out by the cast and, if they wish, the audience.
However you feel at the end, it will certainly not be indifferent. If Cathy Come Home is updated again in 50 years’ time, let’s hope it has a happier ending. And if so, this play will certainly have made a contribution.
Cathy is at Soho Theatre until 14 April, then goes on tour to Cornwall, Cardiff, Swansea, Milford Haven, Aberystwyth and London’s Albany Theatre