Sunday, August 14, 2016

Meet Fred (Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe)

It used to be a trailblazing, groundbreaking novelty to break the fourth wall in theatre, to acknowledge the fact there was an audience watching you and include them in the performance. But with Meet Fred, there is no fourth wall to break in the first place. What you see is presented as real, a show within a show.

Hijinx Theatre specialises in working with actors who have learning disabilities, training them to work at a professional level of performance. Their latest show, Meet Fred, uses Japanese Bunraku, invented more than 300 years ago, to bring to life Fred, a three-man puppet who firstly has to come to terms with the fact he is a puppet, and then cope with having three strange men stand behind him to move his limbs around, and give him voice. It's best not to think about how this works for too long as it makes your brain hurt a little. The idea of a self-aware puppet is not new, but the story Hijinx tells is most probably unique.

Fred is instructed by his director (the show's real director, Ben Pettitt-Wade) that he needs to entertain the audience (us), and so invites him to go to the Job Centre. This leads to a frustrated scene with Job Centre Jack (Richard Newnham) in which Fred is offered three positions - furniture removal guy, swimming instructor or children's entertainer. For obvious reasons, Fred opts for the third job (although begrudgingly - he hates kids!).

We also see him using a dating app to get a bit of romance in his life, and he meets Lucille (Lindsay Foster) in the park, but as she has no expectation that Fred would be a puppet - complete with three accompanying puppeteers - she's not so keen on trying to start a relationship with him (after all, how could they move it forward?).

So far, so bonkers. The show gets off to a hesitant start as Fred begins to piece together the truth of his existence and how the world around him works, and it could do with a little tightening up, but by the time Fred gets his first children's birthday party, the pace spikes and the indisputable highlight of the show takes place - Fred dances to Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal! It's a burst of energy in a sometimes languidly paced production, but when Fred does his moonwalk, the theatre comes alive in a unifying moment of jubilant entertainment.

But then Fred has to lose one of his three puppeteers because the Government is reducing his PLA (Puppet Living Allowance), and his legs man (Craig Quat) is "let go" (but not without a fight). This spirals into disability and depression and culminates in Fred's attempt to commit suicide by jumping off a tall building, despite the fact he's a puppet made of cloth and cannot die because he isn't actually alive. Yep, still bonkers.

Stage manager Martin Vick
Bunraku puppetry is extremely difficult to learn. It takes Japanese specialists a decade to train in it, so Hijinx's choice to place it at the heart of Meet Fred is a bold move. The puppetry is beautiful and utterly convincing (Dan McGowan's innocent, sometimes exasperated voice giving Fred the required life, and Morgan Thomas's constantly shifting face giving expression to Fred's every emotion), but it is a pity we don't get to see actors with learning difficulties performing it. It's understandable given the complexity of the art form, and this is eloquently explained by the director's note in the programme sheet, but by actively choosing such a complex artistic skill to tell Fred's story, Hijinx also consciously chose this exclusion.

There is one brief scene where Martin Vick, who has Down's syndrome, tries to operate Fred's legs, but the splenetic director fires him, claiming he isn't "good enough". This is a touchingly self-aware moment which addresses the elephant in the room with honesty and pathos.

All the ingredients for a rollicking good adult puppet show are here, and indeed, the public reviews of Meet Fred prove it is hitting home. There may be an issue around pacing (it felt its full 70 minutes, and the best shows should fly by), but there is more to it than what's on the surface. Meet Fred's allegory serves to show us all how difficult life can be for people with disabilities, and it is undoubtedly a unique addition to Edinburgh's Fringe roster.

The stats
Devised by: Hijinx Theatre Company
Director: Ben Pettitt-Wade
Cast: Ben Pettitt-Wade (Director); Martin Vick (Stage Manager); Dan McGowan (puppeteer/ Fred's voice); Morgan Thomas (puppeteer); Craig Quat (puppeteer); Lindsay Foster (Lucille/ Fred's Maker); Richard Newnham (Jack)
Performed at the Old Lab, Summerhall, Edinburgh, August 5th to 25th, 2016 (not 15th or 22nd). Performance reviewed: August 13th, 2016

Hijinx Theatre website (retrieved Aug 14 2016)
An introduction to Bunraku (retrieved Aug 14 2016)

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