Theatre review: Cardboard Citizens: Bystanders, Summerhall Techcube 0, Edinburgh

Homelessness is an easy problem to put in a box – and not necessarily a cardboard one.

Cardboard Citizens: Bystanders. Summerhall TechCube 0 (Venue 26)
Cardboard Citizens: Bystanders. Summerhall TechCube 0 (Venue 26)

Cardboard Citizens: Bystanders, Summerhall Techcube, Edinburgh * * * *

From the point of view of those who pass by homeless people on the street, it seems as though you’re either in that world, or lucky enough not to be; but one of the many remarkable aspects of this latest show from the Cardboard Citizens company of London, which has been making theatre with and for homeless people since the early 1990s, is its success in showing how the current homelessness crisis is intimately linked to the rest of our society, and intertwined with daily life in our streets and communities.

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Written and directed by Adrian Jackson for an impressive cast of four, Bystanders is dedicated to some of the 600 homeless people, or more, who died on the streets in England and Wales last year, and seeks to commemorate some of them through material based on interviews with those who knew them, or through reflections on their fate. The style is documentary, with lavish use of film and visual images, and actors often sitting at a long table like a committee of enquiry; the show touches on seven stories in all, including that of the former champion boxer Vernon Vanriel, mercifully still with us, whose problems with poor mental health and poverty were compounded when he became a victim of the Windrush scandal, and that of a man who froze to death outside a London police station waiting for his beloved dog to be returned from the police pound.

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Towards the end, though, this remarkable show circles ever more tightly around the story of the Salisbury poisoning of 2018, and around the two vulnerable former hostel residents, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, who became caught up in the incident when Charlie found what looked like a bottle of perfume, and gave it to Dawn, who died.

The cumulative effect of these apparently unconnected stories is as powerful as it is moving and unexpected; and what emerges is a portrait of our society, in this moment, that is deeply troubling, but that offers both deep humanity, and the exhilarating ring of truth.

Until 25 August