Boff Whalley: How we created new musical The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency
The show is currently playing at the Belgrade Theatre
The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency is Adrian Jackson and Sarah Woods' baby, a baby they rescued from dear old Heathcote Williams while it was wrapped in swaddling clothes and hiding in the reeds of a river somewhere near Oxford. Heathcote was a writer, a hero and a pen-pal of mine, so I was brought into the project after Heathcote passed away, to add some music – and to bond with Sarah about our shared history of living in squatted houses.
Heathcote's story was autobiographical, a reminiscence of an incredible time when an estate agency for squatted housing was able to house several hundred homeless people in London in the 1970s; when the squatters fought eviction by creating their own nation state (Frestonia) with passports, an anthem and lots of cheek.
What Sarah has done is take this husk of a story and inject it with magic and humour, bringing in the wider stories of the time – feminism, policing, homelessness, punk, poverty, community – and tied it all together with music. Which is where I came in…
The original Ruff Tuff Estate Agency happened at a time when the counter-culture of the early 1970s (with its co-operatives, food politics, printing presses in squatted basements and radical underground activists) was being challenged by the anarchist belligerence of punk. Ruff Tuff the show plays out this culture-clash in the form of an emerging all-girl band who are learning to bash and poke at their instruments in order to shout their opposition to the blokes in flares playing widdly guitar solos while their girlfriends make the lentil soup.
Musically though, what the old and new orders absolutely did share was reggae and ska – music that fitted in with the cultural defiance of the time, music that talked of an undivided, anti-racist and communal world. This is where Ruff Tuff is situated, in that upbeat, off-beat, skanking, dancing music that sang equally of unity and anger.
Added to this, the show features a community chorus of singers who have lived experience of homelessness, bringing with them a real sense of the here and now, taking these
inspirational 1970s ideas and making them relevant to the austerity and poverty which a series of callous governments have imposed upon vulnerable people, right here, right now, on the doorstep of the theatre and in the subway across the ringroad.
Which isn't to say the show is grim or defeatist. It's about hope and action, about communities fighting for space – and it's about fun and laughter and singalong choruses! My own experiences of living in a squat in Leeds, starting a band and suffering numerous police raids and arrests, were always balanced against a sense of adventure, fun and do-it-yourself energy that drove us and inspired us. That's where Ruff Tuff emerges, all manic energy, ideas and ideals. It isn't a nostalgic look back as much as a way of shouting, over an infectious ska rhythm, "Times are tough, but you know what? People are tougher!"
The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency is co-produced by Cardboard Citizens, Coventry UK City of Culture, and Belgrade Theatre, and runs to 16 October at Belgrade Theatre.