THE RUFF TUFF CREAM PUFF ESTATE AGENCY
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 12th October, 2021
It begins with a disclaimer. What we are about to see bears little or no resemblance to real events, people or anything. We take this with a pinch of salt.
It’s 1977 and two young women arrive in London from Coventry for a new start. They find their way to the eponymous agency, an underground organisation that finds squats for anyone who needs one. I say ‘organisation’, it’s more of a free-for-all, a post-hippy ‘take what you need, the rest is greed’ collective. It’s the optimistic, can-do attitude socialism missing from politics today.
The trouble is the play is a bit of a mess, sprawling across the stage like its set, a conglomeration of furniture and throw pillows. Brechtian techniques abound, in a bid to get us thinking about the issues raised rather than engaging with the characters: projections and playback of contemporary news reports set the scene, but only sometimes. As characters rattle off facts and figures about the people they have homed, it is left to us to wonder if things have improved since then. (They haven’t). A missed opportunity to complement the action with facts and figures from today.
It’s not just homelessness. Domestic violence also features. The dangers women face by walking out at night… All of which are maddeningly relevant today. The play touches on them but doesn’t develop them.
One of its problems is there are too many characters, and these are mainly mouthpieces. The ensemble is lead by Joseph Tweedale as John, whose endeavours lead him to hit the bottle in a big way. John is a flamboyant character, defiant in the face of authority, and Tweedale certainly has charisma. An anti-hero. Antagonistic characters are presented in two-dimensional, satirical ways: a couple of plain clothes coppers provide their own comedy sound effects; a landlord sports a silly bald wig and a huge belly, in true agit-prop style, while those to whom we are supposed to relate speak in arguments, in unconvincing dialogue.
Escaping her abusive boyfriend is Lu (Daisy Ann Fletcher); what lifts her storyline above soap opera cliché is the belter of a song she knocks out—the music in this show is rather splendid, courtesy of composer Boff Whalley, with the versatile cast playing live. The score is infused with reggae and ska beats and its irresistible. The cast is augmented by “The Choir With No Name” in the auditorium’s boxes, adding depth and harmonies to the vocals.
The second act is tighter than the first, beginning with projected photographs of the real residents of the new nation the squatters establish, the short-lived ‘Frestonia’. We only hear about it by report. It might have been interesting to hear from characters living there, what their experience was like, how it all worked, or didn’t…
What we get is agit-prop that doesn’t agitate us. What gets under our skin is not the inequalities built into our society but the music, performed by this hard-working and talented cast. The play needs to pick one of its battles and focus on that in order to have a clearer vision and a greater impact.