Fred is what you could call a reluctant performer. Not for him the fame, fortune or, at least, fascination of touring life. Finding a woman, getting a job and keeping his benefits are more important to the star of this upcoming Back To Ours festival show.
He just wants to fit in and be an ordinary bloke.
The trouble is, that is not so easy when you are a puppet.
Helping the two-foot-tall cloth puppet on his quest for acceptance are Ben Pettitt-Wade and members of the Hijinx Theatre Company.
The theatre company has been performing across the UK for years and Hijinx has gained critical acclaim in recent years for the diversity of cast members. Every performance includes actors with learning disabilities and the inclusive theatre group has professional production values learned at its own Hijinx Academies.
“Fred is a puppet. The show is about the trials and tribulations he faces as a puppet that wants to be a part of the every day,” says Ben. “What became more and more apparent as we were developing the show were the parallels between the reliance a puppet has on his puppeteers in order to function and be independent, and the lives of a lot of the people we knew”
The resulting satire sees Fred, the puppet wanting acceptance in a human world, having to go through job centre interviews to have any chance of keeping payments of his PLA: Puppetry Living Allowance.
He is forced to take a job as a children’s entertainer, which he sees as prejudice. Just because he is a puppet why should he have to entertain children?
Ben Pettitt-Wade, Hijinx Theatre Company
The set-up, although comical, carries strong messages and Hijinx is not afraid to tackle issues head on. The shows themselves are just as unflinching. Perhaps surprisingly for a puppet show, Meet Fred comes with a language warning and is strictly for over-14s only. The farcical blend of high-energy performance, swearing used “almost as punctuation” and even a snippet of puppet nudity ensure that this is not one for young kids.
Not a seaside Punch and Judy show then. The style of puppetry is a modernised form of bunraku, the Japanese form often used by Hijinx collaborators and puppet specialists Blind Summit.
It is extreme puppetry. The emotional range of the puppet is quite large and the further you push that the more entertaining it is.”
With three puppeteers controlling the body and a physical and emotional intensity to performances, the shows can be energetic and no two ever the same. It is something that has impressed critics and audiences alike on the tour and throughout a hit run at the Edinburgh Festival. “The audience reaction has been very humbling. We’ve had fantastic, five-star reviews and it feels like we’ve really hit a chord with this one,” says Ben. “Fred is a kind of everyman. He’s put in some very difficult situations and I think everyone feels a real empathy with how he reacts to those situations”.
Meet Fred and the Hijinx theatre company come to Hull 2017 as part of the eclectic Back To Ours half-term holiday festival at: Kingswood Academy on 22 February; Archbishop Sentamu Academy on 23 February; and Sirius Academy West on 25 February. The same festival which has screenings of several Roald Dahl films, gigs by The Pigeon Detectives and performances from comedian and activist Mark Thomas.
For now, Fred and his Hijinx colleagues have nationwide bookings which will take the number of performances to more than 100 and an international tour stopping in Germany and the Czech Republic is also scheduled. It is a touring schedule unlikely to impress Fred much. But, he’s “just a puppet” so surely the rest of us can just enjoy the show.
Hijinx Theatre Company have dedicated their current tour of Meet Fred to their much-loved friend, actor and original Meet Fred cast member, the late Martin Vick, who died in December 2016.