A “crisis” is defined by our Google overlords as “a time of intense difficulty or danger”. This definition suggests something dramatic, perilous and perhaps most importantly, temporary. For better or worse, a crisis ends. It is resolved. If Cardboard Citizens’ nine-play cycle Home Truths tells us anything, it’s that homelessness is not and has never been a “crisis” but a constant, the perils of cold and uncertainty consistent in the lives of both the deserving and the “undeserving” poor over the last century.
Home Truths first piqued my interest because of its scale and ambition in examining this issue. To mark their 25th Anniversary, Cardboard Citizens have resolved to construct an incomplete history of housing across nine short plays, divided into three cycles, which I had the privilege of watching in a single, ten-hour day. It’s a mammoth task taken on with astounding aplomb by the company, with somewhat ramshackle production values and headily issue-driven narratives never dampening the ensemble’s spirit. Between plays, vignettes exploring real life home truths offer more insight than some of the plays do, as the actors generously offer up their own experiences with housing, including their past addresses, front door colours and reasons for leaving previous homes (“eviction, eviction, eviction… eviction, eviction”).
Each of the three cycles follow a similar pattern: the first play begins somewhere in the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century, exploring Dickensian slums, tenements and workhouses, or the suburban experiments of early social reformers. The middle play lands somewhere vaguely mid-century, covering post-war tensions, anarchy, punk rock squatting and Rachmanism. And bringing up the rear is 2017, the decline of social housing, renters held hostage to a spiralling market, and homeownership as a kind of distant fantasy.
To dissect each play’s merits individually is to take up far too much of your time, and misses the point of the enterprise: Home Truths is less an incisive manifesto and more a great, bold swoop, a kaleidoscope of attitudes and memories that aims to reveal context and inspire conversation. However, about eight hours (and an impulse-bought bag of artisanal fudge) into the enterprise, some common themes had begun to blossom:
1. Celebrating the anarchic
First noticeable in Heathcote Williams and Sarah Woods’ delightfully raucous The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency, it’s clear that Home Truths has a soft spot for a bit of anarchy. In this piece, socialist squatters create an estate agency to house homeless people in abandoned buildings, joyously declaring themselves the independent nation of Frestonia. Squatting once again makes an appearance in EV Crowe’s Nostalgia, though with less vibrancy, and in Lin Coughlan’s The Table, Endy McKay sneers at her homeowner ex, glorifying the freedom provided by a refusal to conform. The makeshift feel of the cycle feels right at home with this attitude, and indeed much of the joy within Home Truths seems to come from the idea that there is a way to define “home” beyond what we traditionally accept.
2. Homeowners as Misery Personified
To be a homeowner in Home Truths is to invite misery into your life. Childlessness, infertility, crumbling relationships and blood-thirsty debt collectors are all punishments affixed to those lucky enough to own property across all nine plays, culminating in Anders Lustgarten’s The House With The Yellow Front Door, a masterclass in schadenfreude in which a young man romanticised by Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy pays for his mistake, and pays for it, and pays for it, and pays for it. Particularly in the modern-day plays, there is a stigma attached to those lucky enough to have the stability of brick and mortar, as though the decision to prioritise property ownership will only lead to misfortune in other areas of your life. Coming from a company whose roots are so deeply embedded in advocacy for the homeless population, it’s an easy attitude to sympathise with, to a point.
3. The Mercilessness of Infrastructure
In Sonali Bhattacharyya’s Squatters, the first play of the nine, a poor family are forced to defend their right to remain in their home to a foreboding, disembodied voice – the voice of the landlord, a distant and villainous figure that lurks in the shadows of most of Home Truths. There are wavering moments of humanity for those on the other side: in Back to Back to Back Endy McKay plays an employee in a Debt Collection agency, and Chris O’Connell’s masterfully structured Grip follows the actions of squeezed institutions and profit-driven landlords to their inevitable consequence, grimly reminding us that we are all rarely more than two shit chess moves away from losing what we consider home. But for the most part, Home Truths doesn’t offer much insight into how things came to be the way they are, or how it is we might be able to change them. It’s easy to affix blame to “the landlords” and “the Government”, but such lack of insight feels a little jaded. In a marathon of a production such as this one, when a point is made again and again and again, it’s hard not to ask: so now, what can we do about it?
At 9:45 PM, I emerged from the theatre, bleary-eyed and brain buzzing with stories about what it means to carve out a home for yourself in a city that just can’t contain us all. Though at its worst, Home Truths is repetitive, somewhat scatty and lacking in solutions, it ultimately achieves its purpose through its massive scope, audacity and sheer force of will. It changes perspective, it demands to be heard.
Home Truths is at The Bunker until May 13th. For more details, click here.