Watched by 12 million people when it was first shown as part of the BBC’s Wednesday Play series in 1966, it was the first time many in Britain became aware of the housing crisis. The harrowing story of a young family’s descent into homelessness was described by one commentator as “an ice-pick in the brain of all who saw it”.
Fifty-one years on, the problem hasn’t gone away. In fact, there are more families facing homelessness in 2017 than there were in 1966, and considerably less social housing available. As part of marking the 50th anniversary of Cathy Come Home, Cardboard Citizens, the pioneering London-based theatre company which makes work with and for homeless people, commissioned playwright Ali Taylor to write Cathy, a contemporary response to the film. Currently being performed on the Fringe, it explores what is life like for present-day Cathys? How, it asks, is their experience different, 50 years on?
“We wanted something that would pick apart forensically where we are with housing in 2016-17,” Taylor says. “The Housing Act, which came in in 1977, meant there was a safety net that would catch people who had been made homeless. The question for us is: does that safety net work? Through the research we did, we found that sometimes it doesn’t, and even when it does work it’s often providing quite inadequate help.”
Taylor, pictured, found the situation is particularly acute in London, where housing costs continue to spiral. Families face having to accept emergency accommodation as far as 50 miles out of the city, then commuting to work and school. “We saw the conditions people were living in, often living in one room with their kids, sleeping on one mattress on the floor. We saw the effect it had on their mental health, saw people who had lost their confidence or had become depressed, or lost their jobs because it wasn’t worth travelling to London to do a £7-an-hour job.”
While in Loach’s film, written by Jeremy Sandford, Cathy and Reg slip into desperation through gaps in a very inadequate safety net, ending with a horrific scene in which Cathy is separated from her children, Cardboard Citizens’ members – many of whom are or have been homeless – testify that families are still being torn apart by the system today. Taylor says: “We found that it wasn’t just the poorest people who were faced with homelessness, it’s middle-class people as well. Lose your job and it’s a very quick slippery slope. But, because these families aren’t on the streets, the issue is more hidden.”
Elements of the Cathy story ring painfully true for Amy Loughton, one of the four professional actors who perform the play. “My parents separated when I was nine. My mum tried to keep on our house in Hampstead, but she was on her own with two young children and in the end it wasn’t possible.” Amy, her mother and brother moved to South Wales to live with an aunt, but when that didn’t work out – very much like for Loach’s Cathy – they were offered accommodation in a homeless hostel for families.
“It was pretty unpleasant. We couldn’t have visitors in the flat and there was a warden who had a key to everybody’s flat, so there was no privacy. For my mum, as a single parent with two young children, she was uprooted from all her friends and connections, her support network.” While she pays tribute to her mother’s strength and determination which kept the family together and, in time, got them back into a home of their own, she recognises how others can be broken by the experience, as Cathy was. “It’s easy to watch from afar and say: ‘You’ve got to stay calm,’ but the emotions and the isolation and loneliness can knock you down. The one time when you need strength is when you run out because it takes so much to survive, especially when you’ve got a child.
“The play feels vital and necessary. The more you learn about that the hoops people have to jump through, the more shocking it is.”
Adrian Jackson, the founder and director of Cardboard Citizens who is directing Cathy, says the play was a decision by the company to “put our head above the parapet” in the year of their 25th anniversary. Cathy has been performed in theatres, prisons and homeless hostels, and at the House of Lords on the second reading of the Homelessness Reduction Act (now passed) which, for the first time, requires local authorities to house single homeless people without dependants. “That was pretty pleasing,” says Jackson. “People think that theatre is peripheral, that arts doesn’t really create change. That felt like a version of what Ken Loach experienced in making the film.”
He believes the Cathy story is as relevant as ever. “Beyond doubt, some things have got better. Hostels are much better places. There is a better understanding in the public’s mind that homelessness is not necessarily the fault of the people who are homeless, and the kind of paternalistic attitude Loach’s Cathy encounters has largely gone. But the division that homelessness sows between parents and children is absolutely as painful and real as it is at the end of the film.
“The terrible Grenfell Tower fire has focused public attention on these matters like nothing else has for years. Suddenly, the public is made aware that, in any normal circumstances, the several hundred survivors would be given a very limited number of options in town and, almost certainly, the majority of them would be sent far away from where they lived. Because they’re in the public gaze, I hope and believe this will not happen to most of these people, but it seems to me it will set a precedent whereby any homeless person will be able to say, ‘Wait a moment, those people were housed in the borough, why won’t you do that for me?’”
On tour, Cathy was produced as a piece of forum theatre: the play was performed in the first half, then re-run in the second with an open invitation to members of the audience to intervene, take on parts, propose solutions. In Edinburgh, it will be followed by a discussion about how to address the issues.
“Wherever we can, we really want to use theatre to do something, to effect change,” Jackson says.
“Sometimes it’s just not enough to tell a good story and move people to tears. Sometimes you need to then say: OK, so what are you going to do?”
Cathy by Cardboard Citizens is at Pleasance Dome until 26 August, at 3:30pm