Saoirse O’Connor enjoys laughter, dancing and joy in Tim Green’s new play, Housemates at The Sherman Theatre.
Housemates is a lot of things. It’s a play with music or a musical, depending on your definition. It’s a true story. It’s an hour and twenty minutes of laughter, dancing and joy. It’s a timely reminder of what’s at stake when we pretend there’s nothing wrong with the system.
But mostly, it’s just a lot of fun.
The play follows Jim Mansell, a student and a wannabe activist, living in a shared house in Cathays Cardiff in the 1970s who volunteers on a whim to take a group of residents from Ely Hospital on a day trip and meets Alan, a man with Downs Syndrome who like many of the other residents has lived in the hospital since childhood. This chance encounter spins Jim in a new direction as he invites Alan and a few other residents to move into his shared student house, going up against the hospital to make it happen, changing history and social care forever.
Peter Mooney is a brilliant everyman, bringing a believable righteous, occasionally ill-informed, fury to Jim without ever losing the character’s compassionate centre. The spark between Mooney and the wonderful Gareth John, who brings a wicked sense of comic timing and heart to Alan, is the magic that makes their relationship the centre of the play.
Whether you put this strictly in the musical category or not, it’s safe to say that this is a play defined by music.
Music, particularly rock music, is the sound of freedom. The band are on stage from the second you walk into the auditorium, and Natasha Cottriall’s soaring voice brings anger, joy or just a bit of pathos to the play’s proceedings. The residents’ world is without music: one of the many things banned by the doctors, and one of the most poignant images of the play, the one that spurs Jim to find out what’s been going on in Ely Hospital, is Alan sneaking out of bed to stand at the window and listen to music coming from a faraway ward.
As Jim discovers the history of abuse and scandal in Ely’s history, his visceral disgust and shock at words like ‘Sub-normal’, ‘idiot’ and ‘imbecile’, which litter the speeches from the doctors, the reports, and even Acts of Parliament are striking when put against some of the more recent inflammatory rhetoric of today’s government. The play skillfully (though not subtly) emphasises how the system deliberately dehumanises the people it wants to separate from society and what’s at risk when we let it rob us of our compassion.
Both Matthew Mullins and Richard Newnham bring lovely showmanship to their roles, with Mullins particularly getting some of the biggest laughs from the crowd. As well as her stunning vocals, Natasha Cottriall is a great addition to the house as the bemused Sally, while Eveangelis Tudball and Caitlin Lavagna make a stern but sweet team as Julie and Sian respectively. The standout performance for me though came from Lindsay Foster who shines as Heather, bringing a determined love of life to the stage.
The play also doesn’t shy away from what being an ‘everyman’ means for Jim as an able-bodied neurotypical man either- having a good heart and being the voice of those without one doesn’t stop you from assuming they can’t speak for themselves as opposed to not having the opportunity. As the group go in for their final confrontation with the board, Jim tells them to ‘let him do the talking’- a hypocrisy that nearly costs them everything.
I’ve never heard a bigger cheer in the theatre than the one that went up as Alan, Heather and John stood and said what they wanted over the Doctors, the Board and even Jim. The audience’s energy was electric, and a nudge to any doubters as to why staging local stories to local crowds is so important.
The collaboration between the cast of neurodivergent and neurotypical actor-musicians is the epitome of what Housemates is about, and both the Sherman and Hijinx should be applauded not just for telling this important story but for the way it’s been told.
Housemates is a great night out, but more importantly, it sends a message as true now as it was then- we can make change happen, but it takes compassion, hard work and maybe a bit of rock and roll.
Housemates plays at The Sherman Theatre until Saturday 14th October. Further information is available here.