Thursday 1st August 2019 at the Camden People’s Theatre.
Lucas Bailey plays our homeless lead Fred. The show, directed by Conor Kennedy, promises us that ‘despite his lonely lifestyle he is guaranteed to make you smile.’ It’s true that Bailey makes us smile now and again with his child-like eyes searching for our approval after each trick but it’s not a charm or a connection which saves this show which ultimately feels mis-marketed.
Despite good intentions and the research done (the company interviewed homeless individuals about their experiences), the problems are significant. We’re told via the marketing for this piece that it has been ‘created with the hope to shed light on the rollercoaster life thousands live everyday… and make you chuckle along the way.’ But…there’s nothing ‘rollercoaster’ or insightful about this production. It nails the apparent monotony and mundanity of life on the streets but the production itself is a little too in sync with that. The production itself feels like it’s filling time with an assortment of over-long gags which don’t quite land as they should. For all his puppy-eyed charm and wry, uncertain smile, the act itself is meandering and lacking in substance enough to impress.
We’re invited by the marketing to ‘join Fred on his daily search for friendship in an explosion of circus, spontaneous puppetry and physical comedy.’ That’s a tall order which promises things which are not delivered. There’s nothing ‘explosive’ about the show or the character. Bailey certainly brings energy to the moments requiring it but for the most part it’s watching a bored person doing increasingly random things to pass the time and it’s not exactly interesting to watch. The circus and physical comedy is apparent only in some brief intervals of running and juggling. The beatboxing is a sixty second moment of distraction for our character. The puppetry fares slightly better but it feels very limited – there’s not much skill of performance on display.
Fred’s search for friendship is much better communicated. Bailey’s depiction of Fred’s heartfelt reactions to minor interactions and physical contact do illustrate the isolation of homelessness well and he is at his most expressive in those moments. But the contact sought is hard won and awkwardly gained. This was not a forthcoming audience and Bailey really had to work hard to inspire complete strangers to engage physically and financially. It therefore does successfully draw attention to the great difficulty of gaining connection when our world revolves around maintaining minimal connection with strangers. But does that make for good performance or an engaging show? Unfortunately, no. It involves a lot of lengthy waiting in silence for someone to meet Fred’s imploring eyes.
Even within the freedoms of the abstract performance styles of clowning and physical theatre, the over-simplicity and prominence of dead space within the piece make this difficult to engage with and even harder to appreciate as work seeking to represent the experiences of an underrepresented group. There are approximately two minutes of speech in which our character vaguely reflects on the disappointment of their situation. This is the spoken word segment and offers our only insight into what lies beneath the surface of Fred’s nervous energy. Now I have a real love of the power of the unspoken and the scope of physical theatre but this definitely needed more explicit communication for clarity and direction.
On the one hand Come Fly with Fred does get core messages across: homelessness is lonely and mundane and the boredom is potentially a little psychosis-inducing. It makes people stare too long into the eyes of strangers and crave connection so much that pigeons and requests for kisses become viable ways to pass the time. But it doesn’t make great theatre – it’s static and awkward. I’m not sure anyone was happy about being importuned for kisses, money or taking part in a super silly performance piece, and that awkwardness may well declare success if that’s what the creatives are aiming for, but it does feel distinctly like this piece has little to offer in terms of representing the lost stories and voices of the homeless.
There are clearly good intentions behind this production and there’s plenty of potential to impress, but for me it simply doesn’t deliver what’s promised despite all the energy and heart of Bailey – it simply made me hope to see Bailey in work with more substance in the future.
Come Fly with Fred is presented by Away With the Clowns – it played the Camden People’s Theatre as part of the Camden Fringe and will play at The Space 6-17 August 2019. You can find tickets here.
Media credit: Phoebe Lula.