You can’t fault pioneering homeless-led theatre company Cardboard Citizens for ambition: they’re taking over The Bunker with a whopping nine plays about the history of housing and homelessness, staged in sets of three. And if the first instalment’s anything to go by, it’s a project that mixes ramshackle production values with some properly intriguing ideas.
Directors Adrian Jackson and Caitlin MacLeod have created a warm, buzzing atmosphere by decking the underground space out with a patchwork of old carpet, replacing theatre seats with sofas, and using three screens to project archive footage of Victorian slums or ’70s graffiti or present day protests. It’s a device to tie together a pretty disparate bunch of plays, which hop through history from 1880 to the present day.
‘Slummers’ by Sonali Bhattacharyya is an intriguing look at how cor blimey, honest-to-god London slum-dwellers were scrubbed up and ruthlessly patronised by charitable Victorian ladies. A family move into better housing for the ‘respectable’ poor, but find that their seditious socialist ideas aren’t welcome.
‘The Ruff Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency’ is a more crudely crafted, but equally satisfying slice of history. It’s a semi-autobiographical play by poet Heathcote Williams (with Sarah Woods) which tells the true story of his ’70s anarchist adventures. Together with a ragtag band of squatters, he finds homes for homeless people and creates the independent state of Freestonia.
These two plays are bookended with retro songs and real-life stories of homelessness from the ensemble. It feels a bit makeshift, but mostly in a good way - the kind of cosy, tub-thumping community theatre that’s got important stories to tell. But with Stef Smith’s final play ‘Back to Back to Back’, things heat up a little.
It’s a look at a council estate where an Asian couple and a white, lesbian couple live next door to each other, their stories spliced together. And it brings the crusading heft of the ‘Home Truths’ project into sharper focus. Smith’s closely observed text deftly explores white flight, gentrification, and the simmering frustration of living in shit housing where the walls are just too thin.
Cardboard Citizens slice through the tension by finishing the night with a rapid-fire set of live-action trailers for the other six plays. It’s a bit mad, but like the rest of this project, it’s got more than enough grit to hold together.