Review: Housemates, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff

On the 50th anniversary of the Sherman Theatre, Andy Howells reviews the venue’s current presentation, a collaboration with Hijinx Theatre.

The Sherman Theatre is 50 and its current presentation, Housemates a co-production with HiJinx Theatre is co-incidentally based on a true story set in a terraced house not far from the theatre itself.

A local story of global resonance, Tim Green’s play celebrates the monumental happening of a shared house in Cardiff’s Ruthin Gardens in the early 1970s made up equally of students, and former residents of Ely Hospital.  The hospital residents were casualties from an era of institutionalised care for many learning-disabled people.  Such care, which saw many residents confined to the hospital premises went largely unchallenged. As unkind as this may seem in today’s world, such attitudes were legacy back in the early 70s from opinions stretching even further back almost a century when residential homes were regarded as workhouses.

Housemates follows the story of students Jim and Sally and how they challenged hospital authorities by creating a revolutionary idea which enabled learning disabled people to live alongside students in a regular house and improve their wellbeing. Such an idea would not be a simple task to realise as the play proves, but Jim’s struggle to win-through with his new-found friends from the hospital Alan, Heather and John beautifully balances humour with drama. Thus, making a Housemates totally compelling play from start to finish.

The productions set reflects the stark space of an old hospital and works well with subtle shades of colour to transport the audience to the student’s accommodation, a library, a bus stop, a park and a bar where the student band can play, of which a stage forms the backdrop of the action. The central characters wear a neat line in 1970s clothing and a live music track of songs popularised by Slade, Lindisfarne and T Rex give the production a lively edge.

It’s the performances that really shine through. Peter Mooney convinces us that Jim has the passion, drive, and humour to succeed while Natasha Cottriall as Sally beautifully blends the role of rock vocalist with the voice of reason. I also loved the contrast of Caitlin Lanagna’s Sian, a hushed librarian and writer on the surface, then making the greatest noise with the drumkit when performing the musical numbers.

Lindsay Foster as Heather, Matthew Mullins as John and Gareth John as Alan add authenticity to the production as they project tragedy and humour along with a moving insight into the experiences many learning disabled people suffered within institutionalised care. It is a pleasure to witness the characters as they advance into their new lives alongside the students, giving the audience a glimpse into what their real-life counterparts would have experienced.

An important and incredible play, there is no better time for the Housemates to shine than on the Sherman’s 50th anniversary.

Housemates continues until Saturday October 14th, 2023. The running time is approximately 1 hour 20 minutes straight through. The performance will be relaxed, captioned (in English), audio described and BSL interpreted. The show contains use of outdated terms for disabled people, ableism, strong language, and descriptions of abuse. For ticket details visit the Sherman Theatre website.

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