Hijinx Theatre Company with Blind Summit: Meet Fred

Fred’s time has come. It comes to us all, sooner or later – the time when we realise who we are and what we are made of. Fred? Well, he’s a puppet. Stitched from canvas, stuffing and seams. Fred spots bigger hands behind his own – shocking! He sees giant fingers wrapped around his feet – untenable!  Nimbly executed and extremely funny, a battle ensues between puppeteers and puppet as Fred struggles against this control and realises that he is, quite literally, in the hands of others.

Hijinx produces work with actors with learning disabilities – and both learning disabled and non learning disabled actors perform in Meet Fred. With blade sharp wit and acute mastery of form, Hijinx – in association with the current masters of contemporary puppetry, Blind Summit – draw on puppetry conventions to illustrate the metaphorical strings (he’s actually a rod puppet) that manipulate Fred.  The echoes between him and the lives of the learning disabled performers are clear:  Fred is not the only one who is being manipulated.

The director, Ben Pettitt-Wade, in role as ‘the director’, a version of himself, tells Fred that he is in a show: a show that is all about him. Fred asks to see the script, Ben tells him that he doesn’t need one – that it is his life.  Fred finds himself in the Job Centre where the officious employee, played by Richard Newham, instructs him to take a job – the options: Removal man? Hardly ideal for a three-foot tall puppet. Swimming instructor? Canvas and water don’t mix. Children’s entertainer? How patronising!  The dialogue is swift and smart. Fred is no angel – his quick-witted profanities ensure that the piece is refreshing unwholesome and steers far away from any temptation to infantalise disability. Or puppets. Hijinx display a hugely impressive command of theatricality, with moments of real genius – and Dan McGowan, Morgan Thomas and Craig Quat bring Fred to life with seamless dexterity and flair.

Mapped out in blackboard and chalk is the life that waits for him: date night, job interview, waking up routine, rock bottom. It has all been arranged – Fred doesn’t have much of a say. Pettitt-Wade has set up a profile for him on Guardian Soulmates and Fred is geared up for a good bit of puppet-love. Sadly, the dreamy Lucille (Lindsay Foster) prefers actual humans and Fred is left out in the cold. Things go from bad to worse when he is informed that his PLA (Puppet Living Allowance) is going to be cut. Fred exists as a kind of everyman for the dispossessed and disenfranchised: the injustices he suffers echo subtly and artfully with those faced by his human peers

One such peer is Martin, the stage manager. Martin has Down’s Syndrome: a real life Fred. He has spent the show being ordered about by Pettitt-Wade’s ‘director’ with a disdain verging on contempt, but a revolt is waiting in the wings. As Fred as about to end it all, Martin sneaks in to take control of Fred’s legs and give him back his life. The director walks out and both Fred and Martin emerge triumphant: a subtle and moving testament to the power of the people (and the puppets).

Packed full of first-rate theatrical invention, irreverent revelling, and with an urgent human story at its heart, Meet Fred is a real marvel. Essential viewing for humans and puppets everywhere.