Emily Garside spends an afternoon with Fred, in Wales Arts Review’s first ever interview with a puppet.
I previously met Fred, star of Hijinx theatre’s newest show (and a puppet), during a scratch performance at The Other Room last summer. Fred made quite the impact then, as you can read here, and now he’s back, with a full length show about his life.
I sat down with the puppet himself to get some information on the new show, along with some input from the director and co-stars (When Fred let them get a word in, that is). While we were there we talked about many things, from dating life to politics, Europe (Fred votes for staying in), and well, masturbation. Because when you meet Fred, you never quite know what you’re going to get…
I did start, however, by asking Fred what the audience could expect from the show. And, even before we started our interview it was clear who the star of this show is, with Fred asking Director (and Hijinx artistic director) Ben Pettitt-Wade, ‘So, are you going to do all the talking as usual then?’ as Ben tried to offer me some context on the piece.
The show is made up of snippets of Fred’s life story, focussing on the obstacles he faces as a puppet. As we talk about this Fred notes that things don’t always go his way.
‘I always hope for the good things in life,’ he says; ‘or nice stuff, but it’s probably safe to say that my hopes and expectations might be… how can I put this politely?… confounded.’
At this point Pettitt-Wade interjects and asks Fred if maybe it’s his choices which cause these situations to go wrong. There is ‘also the school of thought that Fred brings it on himself.’ To which Fred quickly counters that that school of thought has one pupil: Pettitt-Wade himself.
‘My take on it is that I’m just put in these situations that hold promise but, oh, what a surprise, they all go a bit pear shaped, don’t they?’ Clearly there are set to be some challenges for Fred as he embarks upon sharing some snapshots of his life with the audience. And while we see some very entertaining moments – Fred is particularly fond of an encounter in a park with a lady friend, (or at least he tells me, ‘the start of that scene is nice’), and he’s also fond for different reasons of a slightly more self-destructive scene in a bar.
Fred’s story becomes a metaphor. Fred, while outraged at being used as a theatrical device, does allow his director to get a word in about the more serious message underneath Fred’s adventures:
‘Situations for example with the benefits systems, with people’s support being taken from them and the effect that has on a person. And we explore that to the extreme, but that extreme is a reality in a lot of cases.’
Cast member Richard Newman, who plays Jack in the piece, echoes this. He tells me about his scene in which he encounters Fred at the Job Centre, and gets to act out a kind of revenge.
‘The character I play is called Jack Johnson, and his scene is partly based on things we’ve gone through – like everyone has to go to the Job Centre and prove they’ve been looking for work and it’s so frustrating. I’ve been through it a lot. In this scene I’m on the other side, a bit of revenge and showing off what it’s like on the other side.’ There’s no doubt that for Fred it will be the extreme of experiences, but as Richard says it’s rooted in real experience. He sums up these kinds of jobsworth-jobcentre people perfectly by saying ‘My character has everything and nothing both at the same time.’
It’s clear then that Fred has plenty to say (in more ways than one, in fact), but what Fred seems to be doing so well is fusing a serious message with entertainment. He’s a talented performer, as his recent forays into re-enacting Michael Jackson videos have shown:
It’s no surprise then that Fred has aspirations in the entertainment field. He describes his future career as a ‘raconteur stand up… Politics and entertainment at the same time.’ Fred, it turns out, has strong political opinions and political ambition. He believes firmly in staying in Europe (not just to make it easier to go on holiday, though that helps) but also because ‘If we stay in it would shackle the Tories who want to make all these cuts, and otherwise they’d have free reign and wouldn’t have anyone to answer to.’ Which, frankly, is more of a straight answer than most politicians will give. Which leads on to Fred’s own political ambition: he plans to set up the first Puppets Rights agenda. And possibly run for Prime Minister. Director Ben did have one caveat on this, telling Fred, ‘If you’re going to be an MP you’ll have to stop the wanking.’ While clearly betraying a bit too much information about the rehearsal room perhaps, I’m actually on Fred’s side with this; predilection to that sort of thing will probably make him fit right in in Westminster.
On the note of future world domination, either as a Michael Jackson impersonator or the ‘first’ Puppet Prime Minister, I leave Fred to contemplate and prepare for the tour ahead of him (though he’d like it to be known he misses much of it due to being locked in a box). Meeting Fred has been insightful and hugely entertaining, much as I know his show will be. But much like interviewing Fred there’s a serious side to the wilder elements of the story.
Julia Inocenti from Blind Summit, the company that have worked with Hijinx on the piece, and created Fred, comments on the way in which Fred, being a puppet, allows audiences to engage with the wider issues, as well as put their own interpretation on Fred’s story. She says:
‘Fred is such a blank canvass, and as an audience member you can put your own story on to it. You might also read it in different ways, we’re all caught up in a system trying to get rid of our puppeteers in a way. But is that possible? And do we ever in the end?’
It’s this kind of bigger life question that makes Fred such a fascinating character to meet (pardon the pun). But the last word on why people should in fact Meet Fred on tour should go to him, so why should audiences come and see Fred?
‘Because I doubt anyone has met a puppet with such style and panache before, and let them into a whole new world.’
Can’t really argue with that, Fred!