HIJINX is a professional theatre company based at the Wales Millennium Centre. What makes them just a bit different is that their productions involve actors with learning difficulties working alongside those who face no such challenges; they pioneer, produce and promote inclusive theatre, making much use of the skills and raw talent of people who too often get overlooked in today’s world.
Fred is such a person and life is never simple for him. As the company’s promotional material informs us, Fred meets prejudice every single day. He just wants to be a regular guy, part of the real world, to get a job and to meet a girl. When threatened with losing his PLA however, his life begins to spiral out of control. If this all sounds just a little bit too heavy for a good night out, what elevates this production and ultimately turns it into a superb piece of theatre is that our hero’s PLA is his Puppetry Living Allowance and Fred himself is a two-foot tall cloth puppet.
The story of Meet Fred is outlined in the director’s notes and began two or so years ago when the puppetry company Blind Summit ran a series of training workshops for Hijinx’s learning disabled actors in Cardiff. Blind Summit practice a form of three-man Japanese puppetry known as bunraku which they call “extreme puppetry” because of the extremes of emotion which can be explored. From these workshops, the character of Fred gradually emerged as did the all too evident parallel that exists between, on the one hand, the relationship between puppet and puppeteer, and, on the other, the dependence on a faceless, officious system encountered by many people with a disability. Fred’s life, if that is the correct word to use, is, both figuratively and literally, in the hands of others.
It was no accident I am sure that our Fred was so frail, a simple cloth puppet without musculature, without hands and feet, without even a rudimentary face. He was no baby yet we were mesmerised by him. All credit must go to his three puppeteers, Morgan Thomas, Sam Harding and the truly amazing Dan McGowan who was also the voice of Fred. Taken out of his box, between them they brought Fred to life in a way that one could scarcely believe possible. Fred’s frustrations, humiliations, anger and achievements were all portrayed with consummate skill.
Director Ben Pettitt-Wade, who also played the role of director, and sidekick Gareth John (in the role of Martin, the Stage Manager) kept things moving nicely as we followed Fred into the Job Centre where he encountered his sanctimonious, box-ticking adviser.
Well portrayed by Richard Newnham and with “Dreams Don’t Pay The Wages” emblazoned on his desk, the sickening bureaucracy of the Puppetry Living Allowance was laid before us. Forced to choose between a number of wildly inappropriate jobs for a two-foot cloth puppet, Fred eventually became of children’s entertainer – something that he was definitely not cut out for.
In an attempt to chivvy him up (“Your life is in your hands” Fred was emphatically told) he was encouraged by the director to download a dating app, and an awkward blind date with Lucille (Lindsay Foster) followed. “I like your clothes” Fred initially declared. Not the best opening line perhaps but it was a start, and so egged on to be a little more specific he continued “I like some of your clothes”.
Alas, the relationship was never going to last! Fred was utterly despondent and what followed was perhaps one of the most heartfelt scenes in the whole show, as he went out in the wind and the rain, heading for a pub to drown his sorrows. With the addition of a simple domestic fan, shreds of cotton, a few handfuls of rice and a couple of well-positioned stage lights, the result was electrifying. We really felt for the poor guy; it was an extraordinary balance between humour and pathos, and absolutely brilliantly portrayed. Three cheers for the puppeteers.
Following a pretty lewd display of drunken dancing, Fred soon lost his job as a children’s entertainer of course, and consequently a reduction in his PLA – in this case the puppeteer operating his legs. Fred had reached rock bottom and without wanting to give too much away, the scenes that followed were truly poignant and led inexorably to the denouement. The real world is just through that door, but can Fred get there?
Well, you will have to see the show for yourself to find out the answer to that.
Meet Fred was a profoundly moving and genuinely engaging show with a powerful message. Congratulations to Ben Pettitt-Wade and all at Hijinx. How good it would be if those responsible for creating the assessments and re-assessments, the hoops and the hurdles that so many people disabled people have to go through could spend 90 minutes or so away from their computers and go and see it. Who knows, maybe they will. Do catch it if you possibly can.
Meet Fred is touring, both locally and nationally. For details visit the website www.hijinx.org.uk/tour-dates-2017