What’s horrifying about Ali Taylor’s modern-day update of Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s landmark TV play about UK homelessness, is the grinding inevitability of the chain of events that befalls latter-day Cathy (Cathy Owen). A single mother on a zero-hour cleaning contract who falls behind on the rent for her Ilford flat, her drop through the cracks of an over-stretched council housing system—until she’s sleeping on buses—reveals a gaping social crisis.
Designer Lucy Sierra’s set is shadowed by a huge, Jenga-style pile of bricks, ready to be knocked over by the cast. It’s a blunt metaphor for Cathy’s life. Owen imbues her with increasingly raw desperation as decades of rocketing rent and dwindling council housing wrench her from where she has grown up.
As Danielle, Cathy’s daughter, Hayley Wareham conveys fear and shame. Director Adrian Jackson’s production is uncompromising. Amy Loughton and Alex Jones play all of the other male and female roles, giving us sceptical council workers, unrelenting landlords and—a rarity—a kind bus driver. The majority of Taylor’s characters are emblematic of society, rather than individualised, but this is a play fiercely focused on the bigger picture.
Activist theatre company Cardboard Citizens, who commissioned Cathy, have worked with homeless people to create productions that reflect the devastating effects of government policy and social changes on people’s lives for 25 years. This isn’t polished, perfect theatre. But that really isn’t the point. And what it lays bare feels vital in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire.