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The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency at the Belgrade Theatre – review

The new musical opens in Coventry

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

© Robert Day

Housing activism in the 1970s is an unlikely subject for a musical and yet the premiere of The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre turns the tale into an entertaining and thought-provoking show.

The plot is inspired by two separate true stories – a group of activists who formed an "estate agency" to break into unoccupied homes and rent them free for homeless people and a project to turn a street of squats into an independent republic. Writer Sarah Woods, working from a piece originally penned by Heathcote Williams, combines the two into a show about a group of plucky young idealists who believe they can change the world one building at a time.

Woods and director Adrian Jackson bring the tale to life by creating a colourful cast of characters – all with their individual stories. Heading up the agency is John, played by Joseph Tweedale, whose initial drive and enthusiasm becomes worn down by his increasing awareness that for every individual he homes there are hundreds more who need help. With the police watching his every move, he becomes hopeless, finding solace in alcohol – but the booze can only provide temporary relief.

Then there's Lu, trapped in a destructive relationship with her abusive partner Simon. Daisy Ann Fletcher gives us a multi-faceted character who is desperate to escape but also desperate to believe the relationship can improve. Fletcher is a fantastic vocalist capable of investing real emotion into her songs.

And there's Rosie (Hollie Cassar) whose love for fellow activist Dave (Benji Lord) is gradually worn down by his sexism and devotion to the cause over her.

The story is carried along by a soundtrack by musician Boff Whalley, the former Chumbawumba lead guitarist. Heavily inspired by '70s tunes, the string of punchy songs features the cast of actor-musicians playing a range of instruments from the traditional guitars and drums to a pair of upside-down saucepans.

There are strong vocal performances from most of the cast but the percussion is so loud it often drowns out the lyrics and, when the songs are so much part of the story, this feels like a real loss.

The plot would also benefit from some fine-tuning – there is a lot happening and the pace changes towards the end with a frantic rush to tie up all of the different narrative strands. This results in some sudden changes of direction and leaves some questions unanswered.

The show is created by Cardboard Citizens which has a solid track record of making theatre with, for and about people who have experienced homelessness. Premiered at the Belgrade as part of Coventry UK City of Culture 2021, the show's professional cast is given ample support by a community choir made up of local people with experience of homelessness formed in partnership with the Choir with No Name.

It may be set nearly 50 years ago but The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency feels particularly relevant today. With increasing levels of homelessness, domestic abuse and mental health problems, the social issues tackled by these activists are still very much with us – so it feels encouraging that the show finishes with a shout of optimism.