Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
It was my third time Meeting Fred last night, and what a journey it’s been. From a scratch night at The Other Room last summer to my interview with him (and a first for Wales Arts Review as well) I feel I’ve got to know this puppet well. It was finally time to see his story in full.
Meet Fred is charming, hilarious and touching with puppetry skills that are really a wonder to watch. Drawing on the puppetry forms of Bunraku (a three man puppetry style that originates in Japan) which Hijinx developed with puppet company Blind Summit, who coined the term ‘extreme puppetry’ for the extremes of emotion it creates. The skill of the puppeteers and the actors in responding to Fred are a credit to the joint work of Hijinx/Blind Summit and the hard work over workshops and the rehearsal period in making Fred come to life.
The puppetry team (Dan McGowan, Morgan Thomas, Craif Quat) work in harmony, controlling and giving life to Fred. They simultaneously blend into the background so the audience cease to see ‘Fred the Puppet’ but see him as another actor, while also, as puppeteers, reflecting and creating Fred’s emotions through their own bodies. The way the three other actors (and one rogue director) work with Fred shows just how much of a ‘real person’ he has become interacting with him seamlessly, and despite the constant reminders that he is ‘a puppet’ it’s really hard to see Fred as anything but a real person. Added bonus last night was BSL interpreter Anthony Evans who in the spirit of the piece became part of the action when Fred noticed he was there.
The narrative quickly becomes meta-theatrical with Fred realising, to his shock, that he is a puppet. The intervention of director Ben Pettit-Wade, playing a version of himself, starting by telling Fred he’s a puppet and culminating in an artistic showdown between the two. Fred takes a look at the set around him, which seems to map out his life for him in a ‘thought shower’ (Fred is quickly reprimanded for his use of the term ‘brain storm’) and asks to skip to the part where he meets his maker… however, his director disagrees, sending him on a series of ‘adventures’ first. Fred encounters the job centre, a date, a disastrous job and an ill-advised evening in a bar.
Parallels between the average British human life and Fred’s soon become apparent, in particular for those people with disabilities, in-line the work Hijinx does with actors who have learning disabilities. Across a number of scenes the idea of being ‘trapped in a system’ and ‘dependant on others’ is raised. Forced to take a job, despite none being suitable, by the job centre, Fred is left with no choice in his own employment. At the same time the director painstakingly and confusingly explains to him why he can’t be paid to be in his own show, because he’d lose his benefits, as the show couldn’t afford to pay his puppeteers. It serves to illustrate the complex stupidity of the DWP (Department of Work and Puppets, naturally). But the parallels to real world experience are clear. On the surface it might seem an easy, or simplistic metaphor. However when Fred does lose money for one of his puppeteers they have to make a choice: lose arms, legs, or head? Instead the choice becomes completely arbitrary, decided through a game of rock, paper, scissors, and Fred loses his legs. A neat metaphor for just how arbitrary the benefits system can be, and how quickly devastating its decisions.
But Meet Fred isn’t just about the big questions; it’s also genuinely entertaining and funny. It’s fair to say that Fred doesn’t hold back in his thoughts (which incidentally had Anthony Evans doing some very interesting and entertaining BSL interpretation as well). At times charming – Fred’s date with Lucille sweet and awkward (until admittedly it all goes a bit wrong). It’s also hard to forget Fred’s recreation of a Michael Jackson number, however inappropriate it might have been for a children’s birthday party.
It’s well worth meeting Fred if you get a chance. Firstly, for a highly entertaining, moving and brilliantly produced piece of theatre. Secondly, to see that inclusive theatre can be all of these things, and much more. Hijinx challenges their actors to produce high calibre work, and continues to break down barriers in doing so. The more audiences that see what kind of work Hjinx are doing, the more the barriers theatre audiences, and the rest of the world see, can also be broken down. And meeting Fred is an excellent place to start with that.