16 Nov Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Lights up the Stage in Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre
I recently had the pleasure of watching my fellow Underground Lights’ members perform on the main stage at the Belgrade. This, in collaboration with Cardboard Citizens, and The Choir of No Name. It was one of the highlights of the Coventry City of Culture, which brought Citz to Coventry. First to rehearse and perform a pair of cardboard camps dramas based on experiences of homelessness in real life, by the members of the cast. Some of the same people went on to become the choir and support the musical through song, the spoken word, dancing and on stage roles.
Based on true-life events, The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency is an original musical making its debut at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre on 11th October 2021. The inspiration came from an account written by the late Heathcote Williams, a playwright/ writer who lived in the squat community himself. Adrian Jackson, who knew Heathcote, directed, Sarah Woods, a Coventry native, reworked his words into a musical extravaganza, and Boff Whalley from Chumbawamba created a masterpiece of musical numbers to complement. Add to that a stunningly talented cast of musicians and singers and an important message is shared through entertainment, song and humour, notwithstanding dark moments of stark reality.
What is the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency anyway? In West London in 1977 the law allowed for squatters to legally live in houses that were empty as long as they didn’t break in. So Ruff Tuff did the breaking in, and they didn’t care where they went, the Cambodian Embassy, an old police station, or Mick Jagger’s country house, as we were told. And being an estate agency, homeless and dispossessed people would phone or come in and receive keys to their new squat. When the Chiswick Women’s Aid lost their premises and 150 vulnerable women and children who had been victims of domestic violence were faced with life on the streets, the Ruff Tuff folks broke into an empty hotel, Palm Court, and even though they used camping gas stoves, everyone was fed and survived safely housed. The second half of the musical opened with large black and white photographs from the day of the Palm Court Hotel and the women and children who lived there, which made for a much more poignant storytelling.
Underground Lights Choir Members: Joe, Julianne, Emma, Malcolm, Debbie, Cecelia
(& Bengy on UL Front of House Duty)
Back to the Beginning
A neon blue light the shape of the River Thames descends the width of the stage with coloured dots, each representing different habitats. The scene is set inside the Ruff Tuff premises, which is itself a squat of a building owned by a particularly large landlord. John ‘Mad Dog’ Sky is in charge, he has a desk and a phone, and other members live there, eating rubbish risotto, made from food routinely discarded by shops and then rescued.
The story follows the characters’ lives, focusing on relationships and discord, particularly the two very strange policemen who consistently spy on the group and the ever present menace of death threats to John Sky. We see that Freston Road and Bramley Road are home to 120 squatters when the council announces a tender for the land and intends to knock the houses down. In order to save their dwellings, the entire group of residents adopt the surname Bramley, and as one large family can apply to be rehoused together. Named for Freston Road, Frestonia emerged as an independent country with its own flag, postage stamps used and accepted by the Royal Mail, and national anthem. The national anthem is one of the catchiest tunes you’ll ever hear and isn’t easily forgotten.
As history tells us, the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency, from the West London 1970’s saved hundreds from destitution and saved who knows how many lives. Their legacy lives on in the way of the Bramley Housing Association, which worked with the council on redeveloping the land on Freston and Bramley. The derelict houses were replaced with a much larger plot of brand new Built for Purpose homes and to this day their children and grandchildren live in them.
My favourite character was Lu. She escaped from a violent boyfriend and had also been kicked out by her mother. She was homeless on arriving in London with her friend Ali but refused to admit it. Throughout the play we see her transform from a drunken abused girlfriend to a strong single woman who, although once returned to Steve, had the courage to leave him again and, as we saw, chase him off and reject him as she recognised her own worth. The Muffs, the punk girl band with Lu, Ali, Rosie and Cheffie played a powerful song as Steve was chased off stage, ‘I’m not that girl’ and the audience were very appreciative of the conclusion to their relationship.
I also enjoyed the stage drama of the dark devolution of ‘Mad Dog’ into a drinking psychotic mess, (which was entirely natural given his circumstances). The men on stage comforting him and singing ‘Breathe Together’ was definitely one of my highlights of the show, and I would love to hear that song over and over as I found it beautiful.
The best thing about Ruff Tuff personally was watching my friends perform, but I thoroughly enjoyed the music and drama on stage and learning about the history of Frestonia, something I had never heard of despite having lived in that area in the early 90’s. Back to 2021 and we could do with another rebellion to protect the homeless, having been miraculously housed during lockdown, something which had been said to be impossible earlier.
A musical with a message, I can’t wait for the CD to come out so that I can sing along at home…
…. and can we please have it back on stage all over the country?