Cathy Come Home, Barbican Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

In the 50 years since it was first broadcast, the BBC play Cathy Come Home has come to be seen as the archetypal polemical drama. Its story of a couple who found themselves drawn into homelessness chimed with the viewing public, and the foundation of charity Shelter a few weeks later, while not a direct result of the teleplay, found itself propelled into the public consciousness far more than if Ken Loach’s film of Jeremy Sandford’s script had not aired.

Flash forward half a century, and one would hope that such a work was a museum piece, a relic that had no relevance to today’s world. But as Cardboard Citizens’ stage adaptation proves, the depressing truth is that it feels all too germane to today’s Britain. The staging uses dialogue and statistics that were included in the original 1952 play, with large screens relaying the 2016 equivalent figures. The frightening thing is that the numbers of homeless and displaced families have not gone down – and in many cases, have shot upwards.

Ellé Payne’s Cathy starts out as a bright, perky individual who hitches a lift to London on a whim, having larks and finding a hunky boyfriend, Reg (Denholm Spurr). Newly married and pregnant, they move into a new flat, marvelling at the new-fangled double glazing. But an accident puts paid to Reg’s driving job, beginning the series of small steps that see them slowly fall into London’s underclass.

Payne and Spurr are adorably sweet together, helping the audience to connect with them. The couple’s children are represented by a succession of folded macintoshes, a clever and imaginative expression that is in tune with the impressionistic design at work. There are no props, other than the chairs which the ensemble use and the same macintoshes that they all wear, yet scenes from a raucous East End pub wedding to a heartbreaking caravan fire are beautifully expressed.

The ensemble themselves, a 20-strong collective of non-actors who, in the words of director Tony McBride, “each of whom have battled, or is battling through their own journey away from homelessness”. True, professional actors might deliver the lines more strongly, might sing with perfect pitch, might all dance in perfect synchrony. But they might struggle with the energy, commitment and personal connection that drives the emotion home. And Sarah Levinsky’s choreography, evocative while keeping individual moves simple, allow the entire cast to deliver a powerful couple of dance numbers.

At the end of an intense single act, the moment when Cathy’s children are forcibly taken from her is every bit as powerful on stage as in Ken Loach’s original film. Cardboard Citizens’ adaptation stokes the same sense of righteous anger as audiences felt 50 years ago, and makes one wonder how much more it would take for real action on homelessness to finally take root. If this story still feels relevant in another 50 years, that will be criminal.

This production of Cathy Come Home was live streamed, and a copy of the play, and the post-show discussion, is available below: