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Playwright Ali Taylor: A modern-day Cathy would struggle in London

Taylor's new play is a response to Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home which looks at the consequences of homelessness

Adrian Jackson (L) with playwright Ali Taylor (R)
© Cathy Pamela Raith

When Cathy Come Home was first broadcast in 1966, it sent shockwaves through British society. It told the story of a young couple descending into poverty and homelessness after being evicted from their London flat. The film - which a quarter of the UK population watched on the BBC - was shot in a gritty realistic style and exposed a welfare system that was heartless, judgmental and cruel. The final moment when Cathy's young children are ripped from her arms by social workers is still one of the most upsetting images in cinema history.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the film and my play Cathy for Cardboard Citizens is a response to Ken Loach's film. It asks what would happen to a modern day Cathy. What has changed for the better since the '60s and what hasn't?

One thing I know is that if Cathy were living in London today, she'd be facing extortionate rents, low pay and zero hour contracts, just like thousands of other Londoners.

'I decided to concentrate on the people most affected by today's crisis'

Because this London, as we all know, is in the grip of a housing crisis. There simply aren't enough homes. Councils have been selling off their housing stock for decades. Developers aren't building enough. And so demand is high which has pushed up the price of rents and mortgages.

Rather than follow a Cathy who was coming into London, the director Adrian Jackson and I decided to concentrate on the people most affected by today's crisis: the settled residents of London, specifically single women juggling families and work, whose benefits have been slashed, and who are at the mercy of ruthless landlords who want to replace them with high earning professionals.

Once evicted, these desperate people aren't always being temporarily housed in flats near their children's schools or near their jobs but being relocated to places far out of London, in Luton, Thurrock, Leicester and sometimes even Newcastle. They are separated from their support networks of friends and family. They find themselves isolated in dirty blocks. If they are single mums - and we met so many single mums during our research - where once they could have turned to a neighbour or parent to look after the kids for an hour, now they can't. So working becomes harder and their money dries up and they wait and wait and wait to be housed in a flat back home.

The people we met said they felt trapped in limbo.

It affects their mental health and their children's education.

So we have a story about a Cathy whose journey out of London is the inverse of Cathy's in Cathy Come Home's journey. But, like Loach's Cathy, her own story spirals into a place that gets very dark and very troubled.

There are 43,000 households classed as homeless. But this number could well be higher. While many people live in temporary flats, hostels and shelters with their names on waiting lists, there are countless numbers who go unrecorded, sleeping on sofas, always moving from place to place.

Undoubtedly things have changed since the '60s. Council's now have a duty of care to their residents and must find them emergency accommodation in the first instance. We heard from housing officers how hard they work with social services to stop families being separated and people going onto the streets. But the system is so far from perfect and who knows what the long term effect will be of shunting people from place to place.

'I find this a very exciting type of theatre'

Putting this play into the Forum Theatre format feels like just the right fit. For a typical play night, audiences might expect to settle into a nice comfy seat and watch a play of two halves and have a glass of wine at the interval. In this production, you can still get an interval drink, but after the hour long first half you'll come back, and we'll start to replay the play but on this occasion there will be a "joker" who is employed by the company to facilitate the forum. As the play runs through again you can shout "stop" at any point you want and come on stage to take the place of Cathy. If you think that you could handle the situation she's in better, then you can get up on stage and do it. You can, for example, confront a housing officer. Or challenge her judgemental sister. Or try to help her overcome her difficult working conditions.

I find this a very exciting type of theatre. The British reserve might make you think that this sort of theatre doesn't work but boy oh boy, does it. Because if you're talking about issues that really matter to audiences, the issues resonate and audiences respond.

To watch people finding their own solutions to their own problems as a collective is like dynamite. Cardboard Citizens are celebrating their 25th anniversary year and they've never felt more vital than they do right now.

Cathy will open at Pleasance Islington on 11 October before embarking on a UK tour.