With yesterday’s news of Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, urging the Government to ignore their own watchdog and push through with cuts to disability benefit, the metaphors and symbols within Meet Fred become all the more potent. To steal one of Fred’s phrases, it potentially leaves people over a ‘f*** barrel’.
Last night Blackwood Miners Institute played host to Fred and his fellow cast members of Hijinx and Blind Summit as part of their latest tour of Wales. Hijinx, a well-established theatre company known for including actors and theatre makers with learning difficulties in all their productions, have teamed up with the Puppet Theatre troupe, Blind Summit.
Blind Summit, now in their twentieth year, are puppet masters taking cue from the old Japanese tradition of Bunraku. By these two companies coming together Fred was born. Fred is a puppet, although no-one told him that before the show. He is made of cloth and squishy or so his dating profile tells us. Fred is helped through the difficulties of his life by the care of his three puppeteers (Dan McGowan, Morgan Thomas, and Craig Quat).
They help him through his first date and pick him up (literally) when that goes to pot. They help him battle a storm in which he fights off wind, rain and even cutlery. They do much else for Fred, including providing his feisty and stubborn personality. He is never alone as long as he has their care. But when the DWP (Department for Work and Puppets) force him to take a job he is not qualified for, or risk losing one of his puppeteers, things get murky.
The show is presented in a strange, but interesting meta-theatrical setting where the director (Ben Pettitt-Wade), an initially friendly curator of Fred’s life events, loses his temper with Fred leaving him with no one but his puppeteers. This is reminiscent of the sadder stories we hear of our more vulnerable citizens when society leaves them behind and government policy hinders rather than aid their return to ‘the fold’.
Fred and Pettitt-Wade play this relationship very well; they have a wonderful chemistry onstage together. The director’s interactions with Martin also play out beautifully in the sense that we are made to think that Martin’s handling of the scene changes are inconsequently to the story but they provide a further layer of drama in the piece and again serving the meta-theatrical nature of the setting.
Lindsey Foster is also strong as the misinformed Lucile (Fred’s dating profile did not mention the word ‘puppet’). She also plays the part of Fred’s maker and is humorous in her delivery. Richard Newnham is very good in giving us someone to hate in his role as the DWP employee, Jack.
The whole piece is anchored by wonderful moments of comedy throughout. Fred himself provides the most captivating locus aided by beautiful lighting sequences. The puppetry here is sublime – Fred was alive, even as he lay down we saw him breathe.
I must admit when I left the venue I thought of the piece as a sweet and humorous show that probably could have gone further in terms of story to focus on one or maybe two events in Fred’s life. However, as with all good theatre it just wouldn’t leave my mind and as thought about it more and more I realise its cleverness is in the multi-storied Fred. Fred needs his puppets all the time, not just to work, not just on dates but ALL the time.
A thought-provoking piece that percolates for some time after seeing it. Well worth watching.