Rising rents and zero hours contracts in a modern day Cathy Come Home

Cathy Owen and Alex Jones rehearse. Picture: Pamela Raith

Cathy Owen and Alex Jones rehearse. Picture: Pamela Raith - Credit: Archant

50 years after airing, BRIDGET GALTON discovers a modern drama inspired by Cathy Come Home

Cathy Come Home. Carol White as Cathy. Photographer: Dave Pickthorne

Cathy Come Home. Carol White as Cathy. Photographer: Dave Pickthorne - Credit: BBC/Dave Pickthorne

Fifty years ago Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home famously inspired the founding of homelessness charity Shelter.

Now a timely new theatre production researched in collaboration with Shelter will tour prisons, hostels and theatres.

Playwright Ali Taylor drew on Loach’s 1966 film for his contemporary drama Cathy.

It’s performed by Cardboard Citizens, a theatre company that explores housing issues with performers who have experienced homelessness.

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He says Loach’s film, which depicts a young family’s slide into homelessness, led to public outrage and showed how art had the power to effect social change.

“It’s one of those films that has legendary status,” Taylor says.

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“I watched it for the first time last year and it left me reeling. It feels so honest and truthful. That last scene when she has her children wrenched out of her arms is one of the most affecting in cinema. As a dad with a toddler I can say it’s every parent’s nightmare to be separated from your children.”

Taylor was touched too by Cathy’s naïve and hopeful attitude.

“She finds herself being eaten up by a world that’s so brutal. Using Loach’s film as a springboard for reflection, I wondered what would a modern Cathy look like?”

Taylor settled on a middle aged woman with a teenage daughter who is forced out of private accommodation in east London by rising rents.

Working as a cleaner on a zero hours contract with top up benefits, Cathy has fallen into arrears.

“Some things have got better but frustratingly a lot hasn’t changed in 50 years. In the 60s, coming into London was a step into the unknown. Now people understand it can be a very hard with an expectation of high rents and hard work. But what about those people who’ve lived in London for decades? What’s the effect of gentrification and escalation of rents on the lives of people in low skilled jobs who feel the change in the market most keenly?”

Like the film Cathy is based on true stories of the social and personal impact of spiralling housing costs and forced relocation out of London.

“My Cathy is priced out of London at a time in her life when it’s harder to adapt. Her separation is more an emotional one. A lot of women I interviewed were moved to areas beyond the M25, Herts Essex. The effect on the children is extraordinary. They are often commuting into London back to their schools – how would that be as a teen about to sit GCSEs?

Some are offered accommodation so far away it’s unrealistic to take it.”

Taylor points out that all of London is affected by the housing crisis.

“I live in Finsbury Park where huge developments are being thrown up. It has a huge effect on an area.

“Whether you want to buy a home and have to take out huge mortgages or your rent’s going up, if you want a fully functioning city you need to provide for everyone who lives within it. People are taking the hit themselves, getting used to earning less and less. Life is getting tougher but in today’s society they often blame themselves or get blamed by others instead of blaming Government policy.”

Cathy uses the Forum Theatre method – an interactive debate that allows audiences to jump into the scenario and explore different outcomes for the characters so every show is a unique experience.

“In the first half the audience will watch Cathy rubbing up against sources of oppression and characters thwarting her attempt to have a home. Then they are invited to shout stop when they can suggest a better alternative.

“It’s a very powerful form of theatre and debate. British reserve goes out of the window, people throw themselves in to act it out and improvise with the actors.”

Although on this occasion Cathy’s cast aren’t living in hostels he says most have experienced high rents, being moved from house to house and sofa surfing.

“We need to ask ourselves do we want London to be a vibrant city full of multicultural diverse communities with a rich cultural scene, or a museum city like inner Paris or Manhattan?”

Of Cardboard Citizen’s one-off theatrical re-staging of Cathy Come Home at the Barbican in July, Ken Loach said: “There are more people made desperate by having no home now than when Cathy Come Home was first made. Then, we still had council housing…Now, we only have the market. And the market has failed. It gives us luxury apartments in tower blocks for investors while families live in overcrowded single rooms. The lesson from Cathy is that we need to plan – for council housing, for secure jobs alongside the houses and for a proper infrastructure for schools and healthcare. All the rest is propaganda.”

Cathy runs at the Pleasance Theatre Islington until October 15 and then on tour.

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