When lockdown struck in 2020, Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre – like so many of us – looked to its local environs for inspiration. And it doesn’t get much more local than 12 Ruthin Gardens, a mere stone’s throw from the theatre’s front doors – or much more inspiring. Housemates, a collaboration with the inclusive theatre company Hijinx, tells the extraordinary tale of how this unassuming property in the heart of studentville became the epicentre of a revolution in social care.
The story begins in 1971, with first-year student Jim Mansell’s decision to volunteer at Ely Hospital, one of many long-stay psychiatric institutions around the country. He’s shocked by what he finds: residents with learning disabilities effectively imprisoned (many since childhood) in the apparent belief that it’s for their own good, shut off from society and left to live a life of tragic deprivation. Fired by his own experience and historic media revelations of abuse and neglect at the hospital, he vows to battle horribly outdated legislation, dehumanising attitudes and uncomprehending authorities to get it closed down.
Along the way, Mansell develops a radical proposal: students and former residents of the hospital living together under one roof. His plans are repeatedly ridiculed and rejected, received wisdom being that the residents wouldn’t be able to cope with life “outside”. But that argument is cyclical – they’ve been denied the opportunity to even try coping – and Mansell, while naïvely idealistic, remains doggedly determined. His persistence eventually pays off, and handsomely: the Ruthin Gardens houseshare experiment proves a resounding success, becoming a blueprint for supported living, and institutions including Ely Hospital are forced to shut.
It’s a remarkable tale, and a vitally important aspect of Cardiff’s history – but, in the wrong hands, Housemates could potentially have been a worthy but dry dramatisation of the social model of disability. Thankfully, writer Tim Green brings the story to life quite brilliantly, acknowledging the seriousness and sensitivity of the subject matter and refusing to gloss over the cruelty and inhumanity that residents faced, but lightening the load for the audience with snappy dialogue and sharp humour. For their part, directors Joe Murphy and Ben Pettitt-Wade ensure the production is slick and smart, with expertly integrated live music doing much of the heavy lifting.
The key is the friendship forged between Jim and resident Alan Duncan, a wannabe rock star whose only exposure to music comes when he sneaks out of bed at night to stand in a corridor and catch the sound of a distant radio. Exceptional lead actors Peter Mooney and Gareth John make the pair’s connection entirely convincing, helping to illustrate how Jim has to learn to speak with rather than on behalf of Alan and his fellow residents – or, better still, to learn to listen and allow them to speak for themselves. There are superb supporting performances from John’s fellow Hijinx actors Lindsay Foster, Matthew Mullins and Richard Newnham, while Eveangeleis Tudball as Julie, an Ely nurse ground down by the system, makes the most of some of the play’s best lines.
Housemates elicits incredulity, anger and shame that such appalling treatment was meted out in the name of medical science so relatively recently. But – critically – this plea for empathy and understanding, this demand for respect and compassion, this invigorating testament to the value of challenging the status quo and fighting for the rights of the unjustly marginalised, is also a rollicking evening’s entertainment. What started out life as an audio drama has transferred to the stage to wonderful effect. There’s a heartwarming and award-winning feel-good film just waiting to be made.
Housemates, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Tue 10 Oct
On until Sat 14 Oct. Tickets: £8-£27. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD