After a month-long residency at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Hijinx Theatre brings Meet Fred to Cardiff in the first stop of a big UK tour. At a time when inclusivity across all facets of life remains a pipedream, it may well be one of the most important tours this year.
In using a puppet to satirise the obstacles that so many disabled people experience, Meet Fred makes a convoluted subject very easy to understand. Fred is our hero, a puppet trying to find his place in the world but constantly being held back by ignorance and a deeply flawed support system. Continuous setbacks cause him to hit rock bottom and question his own existence.
The subject is dark, of course, but the company manipulates the material into something that is sharp, witty and amusingly self-aware. Fred is a likable personality, and the fact that he breaks the fourth wall and swears a lot merely adds to his charm. Dan McGowan does a wonderful job as the voice of Fred, but it’s his puppeteering alongside Aled Herbert and Sam Harding that really stands out. The three men are superb.
As funny as the show undoubtedly is, laughing feels wrong, and therein lies its greatest strength. Meet Fred plays the satire very close to the bone, with themes of depression and suicide highlighting just how challenging it can be and thus muting the mirth. The audience should feel guilty about laughing, and their reactions certainly reflect that.
In a production full of so many positives, the unsung hero of Meet Fred will probably be director Ben Pettitt-Wade. It’s easy to forget amongst the perfect puppetry and strong performances that he was the man who pieced it all together, cleverly using mobile lighting and simple props to give Fred a space to play in that feels real, one the audience can invest in.
Meet Fred is a wonderful piece of theatre, and praise needs to go to both Hijinx and Blind Summit for creating something that is engaging, entertaining and frighteningly important. If the sell-out performance at Chapter Arts Centre is anything to go by, this remarkable production has a bright five months ahead of it.