Theatre review: Housemates at the Sherman Theatre
On Tuesday evening I was very fortunate to be invited to the press night of Housemates, a co-production between the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, and Hijinx Theatre, a theatre company based in Cardiff which specialises in working with actors with learning disabilities.
Set in the early 1970s, the play charts a friendship between Jim (Peter Mooney), a student at Cardiff University, and Alan (Gareth John), a young man who has Down Syndrome, a resident of Ely Hospital in Cardiff.
The hospital was a residential facility for adults with learning impairments. These patients had very little access to the outer community, and very few human rights.
After befriending Alan, Jim advocates for his rights to independent living, as well as the rights of the other residents of the hospital.
I really want to highlight the importance of telling this story on a main stage in Wales. So often Disability Art is sidelined and seen as fringe theatre, and not seen on main stages.
The fact that this production takes place on the main stage of the Sherman is a statement for stories featuring disabled characters. But it must be capitalised on, this production must be used as a springboard to platform more disabled artists on our main stages.
I think it’s important to note here that this is a story that I was completely unaware of. Its marketing as a ‘feel-good’ story is well reflected in the tone of the piece, and the humour used throughout.
I feel that there should be more public awareness of stories like this, and the historic battles fought for the rights of disabled people.
There was a tangible atmosphere as I entered the theatre. The atmosphere, created in the foyer beforehand, continued into the auditorium.
The set design by Carl Davies gives us a real sense of 1970s place and time. The colour palette compliments the show well. A high point of this production is the use of music throughout.
The audience are greeted by Alan and the rest of the band playing what can only be described as 70s bangers from the likes of T-Rex and Slade. This creates a tangible sense of anticipation in the audience, it feel like we’re about to witness a revolution.
We are, but whose revolution is it? This is an area where I think the show struggles.
The story is largely told from Jim’s perspective. The heavy lifting in terms of plot is left to Jim. But if this is a story about the winning of human rights for disabled people, surely the disabled voices in the piece should be authoring it?
The dialogue from writer Tim Green is snappy, fast-paced and spare throughout, but I did question the perspective from which he came at the story.
Jim’s intentions throughout are good, but it often felt like he was leading the charge, without us necessarily hearing the voices of the disabled characters in the piece when needed.
I feel that Jim has a ‘saviour complex,’ wanting to ‘rescue’ the residents of Ely Hospital from what he sees as a fate worse than death. He could have taken a lot more from the knowledge and perspective of the disabled characters in the play. I wanted more of a presence for Alan throughout.
The potential love story between Alan and Heather (Lindsay Foster) is very intriguing, but not explored deeply enough in my opinion. This plotline really showed the coming-of-age of the characters, but I would’ve liked to have seen the journey of the relationship developed more. The parallels between Alan and Heather and Jim and Sally (Natasha Cottriall) are evident to an audience member, but Alan and Heather’s relationship could have been touched on more.
In supporting roles, Eveangeleis Tudball as Julie the matron is strong and officious, but the writing of her character sometimes comes across as one-dimensional, her officious nature leaves her little room for change or development, and sometimes comes across as comically evil.
Caitlin Lavagna as Sian is the brains to Jim’s passion, and comes across as bold, educated and proactive, but again, I’d have liked to see more from her.
The forthright and sneering Dr. Cooper (Richard Newman), is a fantastic comedy performance, while also capturing the nuances of a dismissive and ableist individual. Matthew Mullins gives a tender performance as John.
Overall I really enjoyed this production. There were some really fantastic performances, and the music definitely lifted it. I do feel though that there were some problematic elements to this play.
When the right to independent living is won at the end of the play, there is no reference to the struggles that learning disabled people continue to face in the present day. A friend of mine for example has been living in a respite centre for 3 years, waiting for suitable accommodation to be found.
I felt that the ending gave license for non-disabled people to feel good about themselves, without acknowledging that the fight for equality for disabled people still goes on. I fear that the play shows a simplified version of events.
Institutionalization continued until 1995, when the Disability Discrimination Act was passed. This one battle was only a start in the ongoing fight for independent living. Had the play remained in the 1970s, I feel the impact would have been greater as opposed to try and link it to the present day.
Disabled people, especially learning disabled people still face huge barriers in every aspect of their lives, and I’m afraid that Housemates shows an idealised version of the present day situation for disabled people.
I would very much encourage people to go and see this production, and its importance in platforming underrepresented voices cannot be underestimated. Long may that continue.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.