dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
New musical takes us into the heart of 1970s activism
A new musical based on the adventures of a group of housing activists in the 1970s premieres at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency is based on an original work by poet, playwright and actor Heathcote Williams. Created by Cardboard Citizens, the show is written by Coventry-born Sarah Woods and directed by Cardboard Citizens founding artistic director Adrian Jackson.
The production brings together two main stories, says Adrian. "The play tells the remarkable true story of a group of activists who set up an estate agency for squatters in the mid-1970s. They would drive around and find abandoned or boarded up properties, break into them, attach new padlocks and take the keys back to the 'estate agency'. Homeless people would come in looking for somewhere to stay and the estate agency would give them the keys to a property they had broken into. Over a two-year period, about 3,000 people were housed."
The team combined this with another tale. "When the Greater London Council was threatening to knock down three streets, including Freston Road where squats were located, a group of visionary playful activists held a local referendum," says Adrian. "The people voted to break away from the United Kingdom and form a new nation – Frestonia. They created passports, currency and had ministers and the like. We tell these two stories in the play, along with a third story about a punk girl band forming – all with amazing catchy reggae-inspired tunes by Boff Whalley, of Chumbawumba fame."
Adrian was aware of the Frestonia tale and was keen for Heathcote Williams to write the play. "I went to have tea with him at his terraced house in Oxford. It was then that he told me about the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency. He then wrote a wonderfully crazy description of the times which he called a documentary play and we workshopped that in London for a few days."
And he adds: "Eventually, I bought in my old collaborator, Sarah Woods, to reshape and develop the play. During a staging in 2017, I suggested to Heathcote that we should adapt it into a musical, and he loved the idea. Sadly, he died later that year. At his funeral, Boff Whalley read a beautiful eulogy, and that's where our connection to Boff was born. The original short play that Heathcote wrote had a lot of music in it – because this was the birth time of punk, a music of revolt. A musical seemed a natural development."
Adrian believes the impetus which drove the 1970s activists is alive and well today but in different ways. "I think the Extinction Rebellion guys have shown how artistic and attention-grabbing stunts can really make the nation's headlines – and their events are fun too. I think we may need reminding sometimes that protest is actually necessary if we want to make change. I hope this play shows that another world actually Is possible. That activism in communities can be fun and can really make a difference."
For Sarah, premiering the show in Coventry is important. "I was born in Coventry – my parents were both born and brought up in Coventry. We sometimes came to the Belgrade to see a show, often the pantomime. I wanted to be a playwright from the age of about 11 and so going to the theatre was really exciting for me. When I was a teenager, I auditioned for The Belgrade Youth Theatre and got a part in The Bacchae, which was really exciting. I then had one of my first plays, Everywoman, staged by the Youth Theatre in the old Belgrade Studio.
And she adds: "My early experiences at the Belgrade opened up the world of theatre to me – both in terms of learning from those around me and feeling like people were interested in what I had to say. Having a play on at the Belgrade Studio at the age of 16 gave me the confidence and inspiration to keep writing. It was my gateway into the world of the arts."
The show has a message for people of all ages and backgrounds, Sarah says. "I want the audience to go away feeling like things are possible. We've been through 18 months of focusing on everything being impossible and frightening, and 18 months of feeling disconnected from our communities and our lives and even our families. This is a show about connection and the power of what we can achieve when we do things together."
The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency is a Belgrade Theatre and Cardboard Citizens production, for Coventry UK City of Culture 2021. It premieres at the Belgrade Theatre October 9-16, for more information and tickets see www.belgrade.co.uk.