Cathy, Pleasance Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Fifty years ago, Ken Loach’s BBC play Cathy Come Home documented a young woman’s fall from domestic happiness into homelessness, and how the state failed to help her when she needed. It’s rightly regarded as a classic, and along with the creation of the charity Shelter the same year helped highlight, and hoped to change, the situation.

The BBC play’s anniversary has already been commemorated by charity Cardboard Citizens, itself celebrating its 25th year of making theatre with and for homeless people, with a stage adaptation of Cathy Come Home that  complemented some of the statistics about homelessness in 1966 with projected captions showing how things have either not changed or got worse in the five decades since. Now, it complements that performance with a new play by Ali Taylor, following a new Cathy in 2016 as her own life disintegrates around her.

In Taylor’s piece, Cathy (Cathy Owen) and her 15-year-old daughter Danielle (Hayley Wareham) are struggling in their tower block flat, as Cathy’s work hours have been reduced to a zero hours contract. A change of landlord to a man who cannot overlook their arrears starts a descent into the Kafkaesque world of emergency housing, where Cathy is kept waiting all day and then told she can’t have emergency housing near her daughter’s school or her father’s care home because it is too late and all those places have gone.

Amy Loughton, in the first of several sharply defined and observed characters, is understandably, if chillingly, dispassionate as the housing officer who, in the face of a family who have no options, tells them that may have made themselves “intentionally homeless”. Over and again, the lack of facilities available is compounded by, and a possible cause of, the authorities dehumanising Cathy, piling on humiliations as she struggles to cope with what few options she has.

All this is eerily reminiscent of the 1966 film but feels like so much more than a retread or remake. While the structure is the same – documentary snippets cover scene transitions there, as here, as real voices describe events all too similar to the fictional story being played out. But there is no slavish adherence to Cathy Come Home here, most notably in Cathy’s relationship to her offspring. Where the original saw Cathy have three young children whose forced removal formed that play’s most emotional moment, giving 2016’s Cathy a teenage daughter provides new facets to the story. Not only does it give Owen someone to whom she can articulate her inner thoughts, and highlight the effect that the family’s situation is affecting someone of Danielle’s age, but it also presents another gaping crack in the system into which Cathy can fall. Given priority status because of Danielle’s status as a minor, the length of the waiting list will mean that Cathy’s daughter will come of age before any permanent housing solution becomes available – and that will mean that Cathy slips further down the list.

It is the relationship between Owen and Loughton’s characters that provide the crux of the entire play, with encounters with Cathy’s sister and a friendly transport worker standing out for the delicacy of the writing and performance. Elsewhere, Alex Jones fares less well, with characters from landlords to Cathy’s estranged husband that feel more one-dimensional compared to both Owen and Wareham’s performances.

Like the original piece, it initially feels as if the central character has been set up to fail, whose situation has been exaggerated – that in order to highlight the small issues facing thousands of people, all the small issues hit one person. But Owen sells her character so completely that any sense of the polemic fades, instead leaving us with the impression of a character that is real, that is true – and that is all the more damning of our society as a result.

Cathy was at the Pleasance Theatre until October 15, and will tour nationally until Spring 2017.

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