The Other Room, Cardiff
Luckily nobody told me beforehand that Fred was a puppet, because I might have found myself hiding under a chair in The Other Room. Puppets, it’s safe to say, aren’t my favourite thing in the world. But its okay; Fred is as shocked as the audience to discover he’s a puppet. And actually Fred is as much an actor as the rest of this excellent company.
For this production Hijinx have worked with Blind Summit, specialists in puppetry, who conducted a joint residency with Hijinx out of which Fred was born. Fred is a simple cloth puppet operated by three actors, one of whom voices him. The actors operating him really become an extension of the puppet, and although they separately feed his personality their skill is such that you soon forget they are separate people. The first five minutes is simply Fred waking up, coming to life and in the virtual silence really brings us into his world and allows us to accept him as a character not just ‘the puppet’.
The play itself is a really interesting exploration of being ‘different’ in society. In the scenes presented in this scratch night we see Fred go to the job centre, and try out his first job. In what quickly becomes an astute observation on the struggles in getting by in society while being ‘a bit different’, Fred struggles with finding a job that matches his capabilities – they suggest a swimming instructor but he points out being made of cloth he’d probably sink. When Fred suggests following his dreams of being an astronaut he is laughed at and told to be realistic. And after an ill-fated job attempt as a children’s entertainer, Fred is told he’ll lose his ‘PLA’ (Puppet Living Allowance). While this offers a darkly funny look at the frustrations in our jobs and benefits system, the scene really hits home when Fred is forced to lose one of his puppeteers as a result of the withdrawn benefit.
Fred’s story is framed cleverly as a ‘show within a show’ where he is directed by an unreasonable often irate director. This meta-narrative feeds the character of Fred being self-aware as a puppet, but doesn’t detract from the power of his own narrative. While we laugh at the director’s unreasonable behaviour and artistic ‘vision’ for Fred, we also primarily are following Fred’s story. In this short version there were scenes we as an audience didn’t see, and it left us curious for more of Fred’s life, and even in a longer version there feels like a lot of scope for filling in the gaps in Fred’s story.
It all sounds quite worthy and possibly less than cheery, but it’s a massively entertaining piece. The movement of the puppeteers and the personality that they give to Fred, essentially a cream cloth bag, is brilliant. But the piece itself is witty and clever – and not to mention the potty mouth of Fred himself. Credit also to the rest of the performers, who do an excellent job not only interacting with the puppet but creating real, relatable characters – from the put upon director’s assistant (who gets his revenge a little in the end), to the nasty jobcentre employee. And of course our Machiavellian director (who at one point storms out over creative differences with the puppet). Credit to all as well who are improvising against Fred’s sometimes runaway improvised dialogue.
The post-show discussion illustrated just how much the audience warmed to Fred, with him even coming out of his box to answer questions himself! There was as much curiosity about the story and character of ‘Fred’ as the process and the puppetry. It was particularly interesting that the creative team hadn’t intended Fred to be used as a tool for talking about difference and the struggle of getting by in society quite as strongly as they had, more it was something that happened organically in developing the character. Out of the discussion it became clear that even for those who don’t have the obvious ‘differences’ that Fred did to his world, there was something of that experience of being a bit ‘different’ or ‘outside’ that everyone could relate to.
The world of Fred is still in development, but the project goes back into rehearsals in January 2016, with a run at Chapter Arts centre and a Welsh tour scheduled. It’s really worth taking the opportunity to ‘Meet Fred’ then, he’ll make you laugh, and, surprisingly for a bag of cloth and stuffing, make you feel a lot as well.