Culture Writer Eva Lovejoy reviews the musical The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency, praising its ability to stay light-hearted despite the politically charged plot

Written by Eva Lovejoy
Images by Robert Day

‘Is it a comedy or a tragedy?’ the audience members are prompted to ask themselves in the very opening scene. ‘It’s both!’ is the gleeful response of protagonist John “Mad Dog” Sky (Joseph Tweedle). And he is not wrong – The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency is indeed just as entertaining as it is poignant. The director, Adrian Jackson, has succeeded in creating a production that embodies the necessary comedy of a happy-go-lucky musical that bases itself upon up-beat Ska music and soulful Reggae voices, while simultaneously concretely presenting the hard-hitting tragedy of a play that revolves around the homelessness crisis of 1977.

For the past 30 years, the Cardboard Citizens have worked to create theatre that works both with and for marginalised groups, specifically those who have experienced homelessness. In this engaging production, we are confronted with the social dichotomies of the 1970s – the nuances of second-wave feminism crossing paths with idealistic ‘free love’ philosophy, punk culture vs. hippie culture and, most notably, the interaction of state organised social housing developments and homeless people and squatter communities.

Entirely based on a true story and genuine characters, The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency provides a glimpse into the world of local activism, summarised in another pithy quote from our protagonist: ‘DIY politics, DIY society.’ Behind this slogan lies the tireless efforts of an independent organisation based in London that strived to provide shelter for approximately 200 people in need over a two-year period.

However, despite such a morally and emotionally loaded overarching plot line, it is the stories of the individual members of the Estate Agency that generate the most memorable musical numbers

In the first act, we are versed in the everyday practices of this unconventional Estate Agency who regularly broke into and procured the keys for hundreds of abandoned buildings, encountering landlords who would go to any lengths to ensure their properties remained inhabitable – cement poured down toilets, rotting fish left in attics and tarmac on the carpet, to name a few choice methods. We see the momentum increase in the organisations ambition; the Estate Agency ekes towards 120 tenants, only to be faced with the threat of legal action from the council thus prompting a collective name change – as a family of 120 Bramleys, the legal obligation to re-home them collectively ensures the continuation of their established community.

However, despite such a morally and emotionally loaded overarching plot line, it is the stories of the individual members of the Estate Agency that generate the most memorable musical numbers. In searing vocals are depicted the personal struggles of abusive relationships, alcoholism, and running away, the audience is made privy to the phenomenal talent of the nine-person cast.

Composer Boff Whalley, who personally experienced living in a squat for approximately eight years after having moved to Leeds as a young man, draws on the cast’s musical capabilities by rejecting a traditional orchestra and instead employing complete immersion between the actors and musicians. As a result, we routinely witness our main characters wielding saxophones, guitars, the bass or the keyboard on stag, which consequently generates an intimate rendition of both the musical counterculture of the 70s and the ‘do-it-yourself’ ethics of the Estate Agency.

Without a single change of set or costume, the Cardboard Citizens have executed an impressive performance that is at once light-hearted and politically charged, making for a memorable and highly enjoyable production. The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency will be playing in the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until Saturday 16th October 2021.

If you are interested in supporting the Cardboard Citizens on their mission to make theatre for social change, please follow the link to find out more: What We Do – Cardboard Citizens.

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