Cathy Come Home, the 1966 BBC TV play directed by Ken Loach, exposed how unemployment, poverty and overcrowded and inadequate housing were condemning thousands of families to homelessness — and dividing parents from their children. The play provoked a public outcry, the setting up of homelessness charity Crisis, and eventually the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977.
Fifty years on, in 2017, 59,090 households were accepted as homeless in England alone. Inspired by Loach’s film, Cardboard Citizens, a theatre company dedicated to homelessness issues, is touring an excoriating new production, Cathy, which presents the sickening human truth about the housing catastrophe in the UK today.
The eponymous heroine is a cleaner, with a daughter doing GCSEs and an elderly dad in a local care home. They live on the estate where Cathy grew up. But whilst Cathy’s parents were secure council tenants, Cathy’s landlord is a rip-off bully who has cashed in on the large-scale council housing sell-offs started by Thatcher and continued by successive governments, and is charging an astronomical market rent. Despite three jobs and a contribution from Housing Benefit, Cathy has fallen behind. With no legal rights and no savings, she and her daughter are immediately in peril.
The play ricochets painfully through every dehumanising interview and terrifying choice Cathy is forced to undergo in her quest for safety and security for her family. And what choices. Temporary, cockroach-infested, overcrowded accommodation or relocation to another region. Sexual favours or a night on the streets. Hungry, Cathy is reduced to begging — unsuccessfully — from her ex-partner and unsympathetic sister. Electrifyingly played by a tiny, intense cast, the play rips through any idea that debt and homelessness are self-inflicted. When Cathy faces her ultimate fear, the audience is 100 percent with her.
Like Loach, this play’s author Ali Taylor has interviewed real people, and Cardboard Citizens brings these voices to light with photographs and footage projected onto a pile of boxes and audio evoking disturbance: homeless people have no privacy, no peace.
There’s an activist slant. Cathy has been performed in theatres, hostel and prisons; to Grenfell campaigners and in the House of Lords. It will tour 11 venues in 2018. At the performance end, audiences are asked for ideas which would help. But what’s missing is a call for collective action by the class under assault from austerity and housing crisis. I hope Socialist Review readers will go and put that case.