Monday, 24 April 2017

Review Home Truths (Cycle Three)

Tim Gopsill watches the bricks and mortar of three women's lives fall apart in a dramatically satisfying, if troubling, final trilogy of plays charting the history of the current housing crisis.

Home Truths
Henrietta by David Watson
Nostalgia by EV Crowe
Grip by Chris O'Connell

A Home Of Her Own

Three plays and  three women’s lives. Each of the plays in the last trilogy of Cardboard Citizens’ intriguing triple cycle of playlets about housing centres on a single woman’s fate.

Henrietta by David Watson begins with the death of a distinguished, real-life town planner, Henrietta Barnett (Caroline Loncq) in 1936.

In some mystical way she is whisked forward in time to 2017 to see what has become of the housing utopia she conceived called Hampstead Garden Suburb, where she envisaged “housing for everyone … the poor living next door to the rich”.

The locals are not fazed at being engaged in conversation with a ghost and readily volunteer the opinion of how dull the place is, with no pubs or shops and all the privet hedges the same height.

There is amusement at the “rich and poor together” ideal, since there are no poor people for miles and all Henrietta’s workers’ cottages are owned by banker and architects.

In real life, of course, it was precisely the progressive middle class professionals like Henrietta who began the gentrification of the Suburb, and she does come to concede, as her little odyssey goes on, that the garden city concept hasn’t worked.

Like Odysseus, she encounters exotic characters of the Suburb. The manic bus driver (Andre Skeete), ranting in Caribbean creole as he lurches the local single-decker \(on the real-life H2 route) through the suburb’s pretty lanes.

A sassy schoolgirl, Rebecca (Endy McKay), who has had a brainwave: a new kind of city where the rich and poor live together. It would be built on a big floating island, on pontoons off Southend on Sea.

Rebecca admits it’s a bit mad and shrugs: “it’s only a project at school.” “And what school do you go to?” enquiries this strange old lady she has got chatting to on a park bench. “Oh,” says the girl, “Henrietta Barnett”.The circle joins up again in unexpected ways.

Nostalgia by E V Crowe is a serious drama, but there is dark comedy in the moving monologues of young woman Anna (a stunning performance from Mariam Haque) as her chances in life and for a home contract. Anna is trying to find somewhere for when her soldier husband returns from fighting, but each move she makes is worse than the one before.

There is ingenious use of The Bunker Theatre's very basic space by director Caitlin McLeod and lighting designer Elliott Griggs,  as Anna speaks writhing inside a sleeping bag.

Her words are punctuated every so often by blackouts as her world literally closes in bit by bit in the light.

Meanwhile a doctor (Jake Goode) won’t listen to Anna’s complaint, a hypocritical neighbour (Loncq again) feigns concern but then does nothing leaving Anna's hapless husband Martin (Richard Galloway) to deal with events.

This all serves simply to let the audience breathe.For Nostalgia – with its short and concentrated span, the actress’s constricted circumstances, the harsh chiaroscuro of the lighting, the poetry and the deadpan tone of Haque’s delivery -- strikingly calls to mind the work of Samuel Beckett.

From Beckett's influence to that of Ken Loach: the third play, Grip, by Chris O’Connell, is a straightforward piece of grim, predicatable social realism. A 50-something tenant Lorna (the third demanding role played by Caroline Loncq) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Nevertheless she loses jobs and home when her landlord sells up and she finds she can’t get rehoused by the council – or anyone.

As in a Loach film, we see the other side as well. There's the desperate advice service that cannot help; the council leader prevented from building new homes by government cuts who outsources  emergency housing provision to a well-funded housing association out to buy properties. All this serves to close another circle of selling and buying but Lorna is left out. It's all laid bare, but everyone seems helpless to stop it.  

This is the harrowing world of housing that Cardboard Citizens, have taken on with this series of plays. It is a world in which millions are losing out and hundreds of thousands are in serious trouble – especially, but not only, in London.

It makes you wonder about the theatre company: what do young actors earn nowadays. Not much. So where do they live? It must be hard for them in the capital city. Their hearts must really be in their work. 

For many, the right to adequate housing, part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is less of a certainty now than for the past generations portrayed in the two previous sets of Home Truths' plays (here and here). The circle has again joined up, but in the opposite direction. It's a green light from me for an engrossing cycle of new plays.

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