Book and Lyrics: Sarah Woods, based on an original work by Heathcote Williams
Music: Boff Whalley
Director: Adrian Jackson
It’s 1977 and amid the pomp and celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, London has an open wound. Ten thousand people are homeless and sleeping rough, yet there are enough buildings lying empty, some of them for years, to house them all. Poet, playwright and political activist, Heathcote Williams, sought to help, and so Ruff Tuff Cream Puff was born, matching those in need of shelter with somewhere to go for free as squatters. It wasn’t easy – empty properties would often be in poor repair and their roofs might be stoved in and concrete poured down toilets by owners to prevent 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. Its successor, no longer trying to secede from the UK, Bramleys Housing Co-operative still manages the properties there.
The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency seeks to tell the story of this remarkable group of people. Director Adrian Jackson is Artistic Director of Cardboard Citizens, which aims to raise awareness, increase understanding and inspire change around housing and homelessness through theatre and which is co-producing the show with the Belgrade Theatre.
With music by Boff Whalley of Chumbawumba fame and an extremely talented set of actor-musicians, the first half flies by exuberantly. There’s plenty of energetic dancing and powerful beats, although too frequently the voices of the cast are overwhelmed in the mix, making key plot points sometimes difficult to pick out. Nevertheless, we see the commitment to the Ruff Tuff cause and the good it can do through the eyes of friends and bandmates Ally (Hannah Azuonye) and Lu (Daisy Ann Fletcher) who are fleeing Lu’s abusive relationship in Coventry. The cast on stage is complemented by a choir formed of local people with lived experiences of homelessness, a timely reminder that time might have marched on since 1977, but the spectre of homelessness remains. While we may feel empathy for the struggles of the Ruff Tuff crowd, their adversaries – in the form of the Rachman-like owner of the property that houses Ruff Tuff and the police sent to keep them under surveillance – are deliberately cartoonish figures of fun and impossible to take seriously.
The creation of Frestonia closes the first half with a real sense that something good can come out.
After the interval, the mood becomes much more introspective and we focus on the struggles of the individual characters. At the centre is the charismatic John ‘Mad Dog’ Sky (Joseph Tweedale), an unstoppable force in this world it would seem, but who has problems of his own fighting a growing dependence on drink. Tweedale brings a nervous energy to the role even as his character struggles to cope with the increasingly heavy burden he bears. Lu’s storyline, where she repeatedly returns to her abusive boyfriend before finally making the break, is part of a wider segment about women’s safety. This is welcome, being especially apposite in current times, but does feel maybe contrived. Nevertheless, Fletcher shows Lu’s growth from needy girlfriend to her own woman, supported by Azuonye’s matter-of-fact Ally. Other couples realise that a shared vision for the cause isn’t enough on its own to sustain a relationship long term. All of these storylines are undoubtedly worthy, but it seems that the real storytelling ends with the establishment of Frestonia; the potential one felt at the interval isn’t realised as its later history is only lightly touched on.
Nevertheless, we have a joyous celebration of how people can rise to a challenge and work together for a common cause, even if it takes a toll upon them. It’s undoubtedly a story that deserves to be told. Despite its flaws, it’s clear that there’s plenty of potential for this to be even further developed to achieve its undoubted potential.
Runs until 16 October 2021