You wouldn’t necessarily think the topic of a housing crisis would make engaging drama, but The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency’s World Premiere at the Belgrade Theater this month was a timely reflection on the subject.
The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency is a 1970s community activism and DIY wellness musical based on an original work by the late activist, poet and playwright Heathcote Williams.
The play was created in co-production with Cardboard Citizens and Coventry UK City of Culture.
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It’s set over 50 years ago, but the issues it covers – housing, sexism, domestic violence, drug addiction – are more relevant than ever.
The story follows a group of revolutionaries who created the world’s first estate agency for squatters who founded their own 1.8 acre microstate called “The Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia” in Notting Hill in 1977.
Now reinvented as a musical in the year of Cardboard Citizens’ 30th anniversary, The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency, is directed by the company’s founding artistic director, Adrian Jackson, written by Coventry-born playwright Sarah Woods, with music by former Chumbawamba lead guitarist Boff Whalley.
Hard-hitting tunes from punk, rock and 2-Tone also make rousing songs that knocked the house down.
The songs about the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor” didn’t seem so far removed from today’s mindset, and the costumes and swift history transported you back to the time.
At times, especially in the second act, it felt like there was a lot going on on stage, but we were still able to lock ourselves into the passionate and moving story unfolding in front of us.
An evocative setting, moments of humor and tragedy and excellent acting from this cast captivated us from the start.
It was particularly poignant that the piece involves a community choir made up of people from Coventry who have experienced homelessness.
The choir was formed in partnership with The Choir with No Name.
For me, even though the acting was brilliant, a real highlight was seeing the people of the community singing in the choir.
It wasn’t, or seemed to be, a symbolic use of their experiences, and left you feeling challenged and thoughtful.
Cardboard Citizens has been working in Coventry since March, and half of the community choir has attended their Cardboard Camps residency at the Belgrade Theater.
Homelessness in Coventry is an ongoing problem and has worsened during the pandemic.
It was quite a realization as we looked around and realized that the words in the play were relevant to the experiences of the choir members.
The piece captures the optimism of the day and is a hopeful chorus.
You can read more about the work of Cardboard Citizens here.
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