All around, the 100-strong audience sank a bit lower in their chairs, trying to lose themselves in the dimness of the improbable gold and pale- blue ballroom. The actors began a neatly constructed and eloquent play chronicling the downward path of a character called Julian - sexually abused by a violent stepfather since childhood, then Borstal followed by life on the streets. Grim stuff, but true; Cardboard Citizens base all their plays on real life.
Not only is their play about homelessness, it is acted and directed by homeless people. Selected through open workshops, the cast are paid Equity rates for as long as they are with the company (some inevitably drift away). There is a director (Adrian Jackson), but each play is devised by the actors involved. And democracy isn't confined to rehearsals; in performance, the company follows the dictates of Forum Theatre. The audience is expected to be pro-active: was the show credible? Predictable? A load of old rubbish? Then say so, suggest alternatives and watch them acted out.
Started in 1991 by London's Bubble Theatre, the funded group has done four national tours since its first show, Pimps, Pushers and Prostitutes, and has grown rapidly in experience and confidence despite the fact that, typically, three of the seven-strong cast in Liverpool that night were making their stage debuts.
'People come in thinking acting's a piece of piss,' said Eamonn McQuaid, who plays Julian's abusive stepfather. 'But by the end, they're three stones lighter, with shopping bags under their eyes.' The only one with any prior experience of (amateur) theatre, McQuaid used to be a McDonalds manager in Belfast - 'Then I got to the point where I said: 'This is crap.' ' He gave in his notice, got no dole, lost his home and ended up in London, sleeping rough.
Amateur dramatics didn't prepare McQuaid for Cardboard Citizens, a company which expects members to contribute their own experiences. For McQuaid, that meant recalling two long-buried events: a suicide attempt at 18, and being beaten unconscious by his sister.
'The hardest thing is that you have to be very open,' says Su Austin, a powerfully built woman of 39. Her own life had not taught her much about openness. Leaving home at 14, she had hitched to Dover and lived on the streets for years - 'frightening if you're a woman, because men think you're an easy lay'. Back in a hostel in London, she'd heard of the theatre company - 'Well, I'm a very curious person and I'm into arty things, so I just went along for the crack.' Su became one of only two women in the group. Fewer women are homeless, she explains, and they are more caught up in their children or relationships. 'You know what young females are like; sort of airy, sort of fly-about . . .'
The entire team found the discipline of a working week hard at first, but were encouraged by their reception. The first tour, to their surprise, went down a storm: 'We were playing in hostels,' recalls Gary Gallard, a founder member, 'and centres where people usually just sleep through things.'
In the Liverpool ballroom, sleep is no danger: the play, Stop the Rot, is sharp and challenging. Adrian Jackson works hard at reassuring the audience. 'Anyone can act,' he declares, 'it's not a special skill.' This particular audience is made up of student types, and they steal covert glances at each other as the play begins for a second time. Time ticks by. Julian embarks again on his shaky journey through life. His stepfather abuses him. The audience is silent. In Sunday school he is . . . 'Stop]' shouts a grey-haired man. He clambers up on the low, rickety stage and the audience claps.
After that, interventions and suggestions roll in. Some lead Julian into even greater trouble. Others are neatly blocked by the cast: 'Does this change things?' asks Jackson, the mediator, time and again. We think, vote on it, and the action continues.
If the audience is placed in the spotlight, so are the actors, who have to respond immediately to each new suggestion. Their ability to think on their feet is impressive, as is their stage presence and cohesion as a group.
In the end, nobody managed to alter the course of Julian's life significantly. But the interventions from the audience were small dramas in themselves: a forthright young woman clumped determinedly on stage in what must surely have been Liverpoool's highest stacked shoes and sat down opposite Sophia Russell, who played the part of Julian's mother. The interloper stared the actress straight in the eye. Adopting the character of Julian, she recounted the tale of sexual abuse, and then left the cast - on the edge of tears - with a simple statement of love for her mother. The audience cheered. 'It had to be said,' she said in the bar afterwards.
But saving Julian was not really the point. There are no magic wands to transform these imperfect lives; but, where there are people prepared to take part in the homeless theatre project, there is hope. 'It's nice to see other people's solutions,' reflects Sue. 'And you learn too. You get to look at the other side of the story, the side of the people who are oppressing you.'
The Cardboard Citizens and 'Stop the Rot' tour continues to 26 March (Details: 071 237 4434)
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