Tensions: Cathy, played by Cathy Owen and daughter Danielle, Hayley Wareham, who has been roughed up by some schoolgirls. Pictures: Pamela Raith Photography


Warwick Arts Centre


AT THE beginning, the set looked a bit of a shambles: an almost random scattering of low settees and chairs and makeshift coverings, and a clumsy array of beech-coloured boxes, sprawled across the stage.

But then this, one remembered, was Cathy’s rented accommodation. And for Cathy, her surroundings were a shambles, her marriage a disaster, her finances a mess, her parenting pretty disastrous, her articulacy wobbly, her temper not her greatest ally.  

Cathy is Cardboard Citizens’ fresh take on Ken Loach’s classic mid 1960s BBC TV film Cathy Come Home, whose treatment of the theme of homelessness caused a major social stir as the Wilson era got into its stride. Loach, 80 last year, is still making films. Some, such as Poor Cow, Kes and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, are – like the director himself - virtually national treasures.  

In Ali Taylor’s new play, Cathy’s troubles begin from the start. She gets a visit from a very pushy, bailiff-like character who ominously gives her an ultimatum for paying the rent. Somewhat brutally, he serves her a Section 21 notice – which means if she fails in a fortnight, she’ll be out on her ear. Not just her, but her 15 year old daughter, Danielle, who is approaching her GCSEs. Cathy’s troubles are only just beginning.

The set (Lucy Sierra), especially the coffin-like boxes, are shunted around with enthusiasm – though perhaps all this is overdone – to make seats or work desks for the gamut of dire relentless interviews Cathy (Cathy Owen) must go through in pursuit of a new home. She works – is determined not to depend on benefits – but her income is petty fragile. We see her jumping through these increasingly impossible hoops, all with negative consequences or their near-equivalent. Can they seriously expect her (and the girl) to move to Luton, or West Bromwich (‘just to the left of Birmingham’), let alone Newcastle? Or to face not a 3 to 4, but a 6 to 7 years’ wait? Only when you reach number five or six on the housing list do you have even the chance of a viewing.


Cathy comes near to blows with Amy Loughton's smug and bossy first housing official

We discover in an early scene, where she goes to visit her quite seriously demented father in his care home, that Alex Jones – the official from that first encounter – is a deft, versatile and imaginitive actor. He takes one male role after another – ancient grandad, posh-spoken ‘senior supervisor’ housing executive, a good half a dozen in all, each artfully differentiated in not just voice but movement. One of the best is as Cathy’s estranged occasional plumber husband, which leads to the discovery that the girl, Danielle, has been visiting her dad secretly, at least monthly.

This ignites one of Cathy’s biggest blow-ups. She is quick to anger throughout this play (‘Don’t ever talk to me about being a mother!’), constantly bridles, yet it is nearly always justified. Danielle (the splendid Hayley Wareham) has learned to see it coming, and knows it will also quickly subside, but is not averse at 15 to calling a spade a spade (‘We’re looking for somewhere that smells of wee…’). Cathy is not her own greatest helper; yet why, the play (and film) seem to say, should she take all this lying down? Owen makes of Cathy a character frustrated, despairing, infuriated, mistreated, yet impressively unwilling to pity herself. She fights, and has a gift for coming a cropper, but she carries on and doesn’t give up. Gutsy, spirited, determined, she is not an optimist, but insists on not being driven to become a pessimist, either.

This is set, not in the 1960s, but more or less today. Danielle is constantly nursing her mobile phone, the passing police sirens are today’s. There is talk of Islamic State and terrorism. This is of course not least to bring home the contemporary reality of the sorry story – after all, Cathy was filmed in the ‘60s and set in the ‘60s, so why not the equivalent now? One problem is that the drama lacks the need for any special ‘character’: there is perhaps a lack of invention forced on director Adrian Jackson. You simply tell it like it is. The effect at times seemed somewhat pallid.

In keeping up the variety, Amy Loughton, who took on all the remaining female roles (this being designed for quartet), added a good deal, whether struggling in English with a well-engineered Slav accent, or as a sniffy housing clerk, as Cathy’s initially amiable sister (it all turns into a row, inevitably), or as a kindly official whose thoughtfulness – Cathy loathing being patronised (‘You think you’re better than me’, she says to the first) is thrown back in her face.


Cathy looks after her elderly, demented dad (Alex Jones), for whose welfare she takes responsibility despite all her own problems


Staying with friends or relations is virtually a no-no. But the real ghastliness of it all – apart from it continually being put to her that she has made herself ‘intentionally homeless’ (how can she prove she hasn’t?) comes out when she is told, if she is sleeping rough – Catch 22 - that her daughter can be taken away from her.

Wareham’s Danielle is both the companion and the witness of all this. She invents a beautifully considered teenager, occasionally sharp of tongue, just as often consoling or compassionate, knowing that Cathy’s determination (‘I’ll find somewhere’) is starting to wear thin. Gradually, and especially when she turns 16, when Wareham effects a marked change in Danielle’s character, a feeling for independence surfaces, amid the realisation she may have to carve out her own life, simply so as ‘to sleep in a bed’.

The soundtrack and video play are important to all this. Not so much the ghetto-blasting, semi-60s noise at the outset,  but the interview material that Cardboard Citizens, which apparently had its birth in Waterloo’s former cardboard city, have collected (possibly researcher Alison Cain) from people in similar positions to Cathy’s. The sound quality of these (Matt Lewis) was always good, as was the video/digital effects of townscapes etc. displayed on a kind of grim dated tower block (Edward Japp); and the light fades (Mark Dymock) between scenes well phased even if the frontal stage lighting was fractionally bald and bland.

So – a spirited enough show in which the passion of Director Adrian Jackson and his four actors for dealing with this endlessly important subject (a discussion followed) was manifest. Its tour, which began in October, ends this week. It may well have done a lot of informing, and to its credit, a power of good.

Roderic Dunnett


Cardboard Citizens

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