Still Waiting for Cathy

Inspired by the Brazilian technique of Forum Theatre and the all-too-familiar problem of homelessness, Cardboard Citizens make a good case for the real-world power of theatre to change the world

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Published 22 Jul 2017

Can art ever change anything? Cathy Come Home, the Ken Loach film first screened on the BBC in 1966, makes a strong argument that it can. The drama, which depicted one family’s descent into homelessness, was a catalyst for the forming of homelessness charity Crisis the following year, and helped to raise awareness and support for Shelter.

But there’s plenty that hasn’t changed. Half a century on, Cardboard Citizens’ new play Cathy reimagines Loach’s narrative for austerity Britain, at a time when the country is in the grip of an ongoing housing crisis. While researching the show, the company found that increasing numbers of tenants were being evicted to make way for luxury developments, and some homeless people were being housed in temporary accommodation for up to 10 years. Inspired by Cathy Come Home, the hope is that Cathy—which has already toured to theatres, hostels and prisons—can also prompt change. 

Work with and about people affected by homelessness is at the core of Cardboard Citizens’ work. Artistic director Adrian Jackson explains that the company “use theatre as an engine of change, both to help people get stronger in their own lives, but also to help the wider society get a handle on issues around homelessness”. As well as making shows for the public, they run workshops, offer training and support to homeless people, and tour theatre to prisons and hostels.

“At its best everything's a virtuous circle here,” says Jackson. Often, the company engages with people in hostels and prisons who then become participants in workshops, and over time might even begin to lead workshops and performances themselves. In the process, the company hears countless experiences of homelessness. “The point of a piece of work like Cathy is to share those untold stories with a wider audience,” says the director.

When making the show, the company wanted to explore what had and hadn’t changed since Loach’s film. Playwright Ali Taylor was struck by how much of Cathy Come Home remains relevant. “What you really notice is how the difference between being absolutely comfortable and being very vulnerable is wafer thin,” he says. “It hangs by a thread today as it did in the sixties.”

Another central feature of Cardboard Citizens’ work is Forum Theatre, a technique pioneered by Brazilian theatremaker Augusto Boal. Audiences of Forum Theatre watch a narrative in which the central character struggles to overcome a series of obstacles, before being given the opportunity to step in and offer their own solutions to the protagonist’s problems. “You offer it to them as a sort of provocation to say, 'Do things have to be like this?',” explains Jackson. 

“It’s really interesting seeing what people respond to,” says Taylor. Audiences of Cathy, which follows a single mother and her teenage daughter as they get caught in a downward spiral of poverty and homelessness, were particularly engaged with the characters’ struggles. “Everyone got really irate with Cathy’s sister in the play because she’s the person who should be helping her,” Taylor tells me. “And then people love having a chance to attempt to make things better with the housing officer.”

Taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe is a new challenge for Cardboard Citizens. “We thought, 'Well, why not?',” says Jackson. “It’s another experiment for our 25th birthday.” The tight turnaround at the festival means that Cathy won’t be staged as Forum Theatre, but audiences will get to take part in what Boal calls Legislative Theatre by suggesting laws that could improve the characters’ lives.

The aim with all of this, as with Loach’s film, is to spark change. As Jackson admits, it’s rare that theatre makes a tangible difference to social issues. But I speak to Jackson and Taylor just after the General Election, when anything feels possible. Following a campaign that has engaged many young people in politics for the first time, they hope those same young people will see Cathy in Edinburgh and get fired up by the injustices it exposes.

“The one ambition we can have for this play is to increase levels of empathy towards people who have been made homeless,” says Taylor. “I hope that it opens up some doors to issues that people might want to focus their energies on.”