The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency – Belgrade Theater, Coventry


Book and Lyrics: Sarah Woods, based on an original work by Heathcote Williams

Music: Boff Whalley

Director: Adrian Jackson

It is 1977 and in the midst of the pomp and celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, London has an open sore. Ten thousand people are homeless and sleep on the streets, but there are enough empty buildings, some of them them for years, to house them all. Poet, playwright, and political activist Heathcote Williams sought to help, and that’s how Ruff Tuff Cream Puff was born, matching those in need of shelter with a place to go for free as squatters. It was not easy – empty properties were often in poor condition and their roofs could be covered with stoves and concrete poured into the toilets by the owners to prevent the squatters from taking over. When the homes of 120 Ruff Tuff clients around Freston Road were threatened with redevelopment, they responded by declaring themselves a micronation, the free and independent Republic of Frestonia. His successor, no longer trying to separate from the UK, Bramleys Housing Co-operative still manages the properties there.

Ruff Tuff Cream Puff real estate agency seeks to tell the story of this remarkable group of people. Director Adrian Jackson is the artistic director of Cardboard Citizens, which aims to raise awareness, increase understanding and inspire change around housing and homelessness through theater and which co-produces the show with the Belgrade Theater.

With music from Boff Whalley of Chumbawumba fame and an ensemble of extremely talented actor-musicians, the first half flies away with exuberance. There is a lot of energetic dancing and powerful rhythms, although too often the voices of the actors are overwhelmed in the mix, making the key plot points sometimes difficult to spot. Nonetheless, we see Ruff Tuff’s commitment to the cause and the good it can do through the eyes of friends and groupmates Ally (Hannah Azuonye) and Lu (Daisy Ann Fletcher) who flee Lu’s abusive relationship at Coventry. The on-stage cast is complemented by a choir made up of local people with lived experiences of homelessness, a timely reminder that time may have passed since 1977, but the specter of homelessness remains. While we may empathize with the struggles of the Ruff Tuff mob, their opponents – in the form of the Rachman-type owner of the property that houses Ruff Tuff and the police sent to keep them under surveillance – are figures. deliberately cartoonish of fun and impossible to take seriously.

The creation of Frestonia closes the first half with a real feeling that something good can come out of it.
After the intermission, the mood becomes much more introspective and we focus on the struggles of the individual characters. At the center is the charismatic John ‘Mad Dog’ Sky (Joseph Tweedale), an unstoppable force in this world it seems, but who himself struggles with a growing addiction to alcohol. Tweedale brings nervous energy to the role even as his character struggles to cope with the increasing burden he carries. Lu’s story, where she repeatedly returns to her abusive boyfriend before finally taking a break, is part of a larger segment on women’s safety. This is welcome, being particularly relevant in the present day, but perhaps it seems contrived. Nonetheless, Fletcher shows Lu’s growth from a needy girlfriend to his own wife, supported by Azuonye’s pragmatic ally. Other couples find that a shared vision of the cause alone is not enough to maintain a long-term relationship. All of these stories are undoubtedly worthy, but it seems the real storytelling ends with the creation of Frestonia; the potential felt at the interval is not realized because its later history is only scratched.

Nonetheless, we happily celebrate how people can rise to a challenge and work together for a common cause, even if it costs them dearly. It is without a doubt a story worth telling. Despite its flaws, it is clear that there is a lot of potential for this to be further developed to reach its undoubted potential.

Until October 16, 2021


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