Theatre company and homeless charity Cardboard Citizens has teamed up with the Belgrade Theatre and Coventry UK City of Culture 2021 to produce a brand-new musical premiering this month. What’s On caught up with Cardboard Citizens’ founder & artistic director, Adrian Jackson, to find out what audiences can expect…

Based on a true story, The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency is a show which combines music from Boff Whalley - former lead guitarist of anarchist band Chumbawamba - with a tale of activism and community spirit. 

Taking place in London in the 1970s, the story follows a group of revolutionaries who found their own microstate, Frestonia, and set up the world’s first estate agency for squatters. Though times are tough and the nation is in the grip of a housing crisis, at Ruff Tuff there’s no shortage of fun to be had, and the show promises to be a feelgood musical. 

Based on the work of the late activist, poet & playwright Heathcote Williams, the inspiring story serves as a reminder that change is always possible, something that director Adrian Jackson is keen to highlight: “We thought about what would be a good story to come out of the pandemic with, and this one felt right because it’s uplifting and it’s about the power of community. What’s interesting about the time we’ve just come through is that the government has shown that if they want to solve issues of homelessness, they can. They had this policy of ‘Everyone In’, where they housed homeless people in hotels for a period of several months, which just shows that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

“The story of the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency connects to that, showing we can do something about the issues that face us. I think homelessness is presented to us as if it’s an insoluble thing, but that’s not true.”

Adrian is founder of Cardboard Citizens, the theatre group performing the play, which strives to achieve social change through its work. Created in 1991, the company was originally intended to be a temporary project, but the venture grew and grew as it discovered more stories to tell and new ways to influence change. This year sees Citizens celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Adrian has been artistic director of the company throughout that time, but Ruff Tuff will be the last show he directs for the group. 

“The production forms part of a wider programme of work we’ve done in Coventry, and it shows how we can integrate trained and untrained actors in a way which works.

“We have a choir of homeless people that takes part in several of the numbers, many of whom are people we met earlier in the year when we did a residency in Coventry.” Adrian is referring to The Choir With No Name, a charity that unites local individuals who have lived experience of being on the streets.

Casting a light on what homeless people go through is an important part of what Cardboard Citizens does. The company empowers its members to develop the confidence to tell their own stories through creating theatre, both for and with people who have lived experience. But participatory theatre is just one of the ways Cardboard Citizens has an impact on wider society.

“A lot of the change we achieve with the company is on an individual level. We have several hundred people who’ve joined and who attend workshops, so there’s a lot of personal and social growth. But we also use this mode called ‘legislative theatre’, where we invite councillors, MPs and ministers to watch a show involving homeless people and then to join in with the discussion afterwards, where we talk about change and imagine change.

“We did a play a few years ago called Cathy - which was a revisitation of Ken Loach’s film, Cathy Come Home - where we imagined what would happen to Cathy in today’s society. We toured that show around the country and, at the end of each performance, the audience was invited to make suggestions about how laws could be changed to help Cathy, who finds herself evicted from her home. We were ultimately invited to perform the show at the House of Lords, on the evening of the first reading of the Homelessness Reduction Act.

“So, we have the ear of policy makers, and Cathy is one big example of how Cardboard Citizens achieves change.”

The revolutionary theatre company has been working in Coventry since March, and has co-produced the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency with the Belgrade Theatre as part of Coventry UK City of Culture 2021. 

As it turns out, the story of Ruff Tuff is more relevant to Coventry than Adrian originally imagined: “There’s a street near where I’m staying in Coventry called Starley Road. In 1978 the council wanted to knock down some of the houses, but the people in the street fought back. They formed a housing association and they won. It’s an amazingly similar story to the one we’re telling, so that’s a nice connection that I’ve discovered.”

The production forms part of arts & homelessness festival Home, which runs from 8 to 16 October (coinciding with World Homeless Day on the 10th of the month). The festival is the first of its kind in Coventry, providing a week of arts and homelessness projects made by people who have lived experience of being on the streets.

“I think the stress which Coventry has laid on the work it’s invited to take place is perhaps slightly different to the stress some of the previous cities of culture have done. They’ve laid a great emphasis on work which involves community with a professional overlap, rather than a separation between community and professional work. 

“Coventry made a commitment to diversity from the very beginning, and that’s good for us too - diversity across class and race and age, that’s our natural territory. It’s very much been a team effort in Coventry.” 

Combining art and activism to tell such stories is something Adrian is passionate about, and he wants the new show to open audience’s eyes to the change that is possible: “I hope the audience will take away a spirit of optimism in the way we can get involved in our communities, and also - and this is the important part - the fact that it can be fun. I think there’s a sense that activism and community work is a very serious, sad business. But what this play demonstrates is a group of people having a huge amount of fun, while at the same time doing a lot of good. The opening song is called Do It Yourself, and that’s what this story is about - do-it-yourself activism.”

The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency shows at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from Saturday 9 - Saturday 16 October