Meet Fred

Devised by the company
Hijinx / Blind Summit
Chapter, Cardiff

Hijinx has made its mark by creating productions which integrate performers with and without disabilities. Blind Summit specialises in reinventing puppetry for adult audiences. A co-production between these two companies was always bound to be intriguing, but Meet Fred is so much more.

It has its root in a very clever idea: the dramatic potential in exploring the similarities between a puppet and a severely disabled person, in terms of their dependence on others. The hero of Meet Fred is a rudimentary, diminutive, featureless cloth doll, who is only given life through the bunraku technique, in which he is operated by three black-clad "helpers".

The set comprises little other than a couple of flight cases and a ladder; its backdrop consists of a series of blackboards on which key words and phrases are chalked, suggesting various paths down which the narrative might lead us. As the piece begins, Fred comes to, and spends a first few minutes struggling to come to terms with who or what he is—I was one of apparently few audience members who found this traumatic rather than hilarious.

Presently he is joined by the over-casually-clad Ben Pettitt-Wade who, as well as playing “The Director” is also the director. He clarifies the situation for Fred, and explains that the “ideas-map” behind them points out the array of life choices available to him; although Fred quickly begins to suspect that the system may be limiting his potential, and that the theme tune he is constantly hearing (composed by Jon Dunn) is inappropriate in its jauntiness.

It is explained that he needs to find a job in order to pay for his help—although he is restricted in his choices by the confusing rules imposed by the DWP (Department of Work and Puppetry). A visit to the Jobcentre, and the adviser played by a deadpan Richard Newnham, confirms that the only opportunity open to him is to become a children’s entertainer—Fred complains that this seems somewhat racist.

And then there is the question of romance—a date is arranged via a mobile 'phone app, but his assignation with Lucille, played with excellent comic timing by Lindsay Foster, does not go according to plan. His first children’s party assignment is similarly less than successful.

Disaster piles upon disaster, all rendered with striking visual inventiveness. Just when Fred is about to hit rock bottom, there are interventions from his capricious Maker (Foster again), and Martin Vick’s Stage Manager, who has been lurking in the background throughout, and is drafted in when all seems lost. There is even a moment at which things threaten to become inspirational. But then one is reminded that Fred’s plight is rooted in reality.

Much of the comedy comes from Dan McGowan who, as well as puppeteering, provides Fred’s despairing, panicky voice. Morgan Thomas and Craig Quat, as his fellow “helpers”, who are not quite as invisible as they ought to be, are subtly supportive presences, but are also allowed brief moments of effective comic business.

The pace seems to slacken at some points during the first act, and the robust language used (not to mention the references to Michael Jackson, and the arcane benefits system) means that the piece might not be appropriate for younger viewers—although listening to fellow spectators who had witnessed other performances, I discerned that it might be readily adaptable for a variety of audiences.

Hijinx and Blind Summit have triumphed in creating a subtly educative play about disability which never mentions disability, and making it both funny and poignant. Fred does not suffer in noble silence; he is a whinger, and all the more believably likeable for it.

Like other Hijinx shows, Meet Fred is available to tour. Heartily recommended.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith