Review: Fred is Cold
Adam Goodall reviews Fred is Cold, a play about depression, grief and a talking refrigerator, at BATS Theatre.
We start with a talking refrigerator. His name is Fred. He’s run-down but irrepressibly joyful; he can also talk, to us at least, and he’s stoked to meet us. He’s a flat fridge, has been for ten years, but he was a family fridge before that and he refuses to move on; he latches onto people like a child and naively assumes that he’s able to protect his ‘families’ from anything that life throws at them. He tries to shake the hand of someone in the front row but his power cord trips him up. He makes terrible puns about being a fridge and defends them with pride, because they’re part of the programming that also makes him the perfect guardian for any home.
More than anything, though, Fred (Liam Kelly) is a passive observer, a Greek chorus that loves Toy Story and has surreal lo-fi nightmares. That is, until Josh (Keegan Bragg) moves into the flat. Josh has moved from Auckland to Wellington to live with his girlfriend, Sasha (Sylvie McCreanor), but he’s also moved to get away from the city following the recent death of his mother. Keegan and Sasha love each other but there’s a sword dangling over their relationship, too, with Sasha applying for architecture scholarships in Melbourne. It’s in all this uncertainty that Keegan discovers that the fridge can talk, and that Fred finally finds a human who can understand him.
That’s Fred is Cold in a nutshell. The latest play from emerging Wellington playwright Ben Wilson, Fred is Cold bears some similarities to Wilson’s last play, Call Me Bukowski, a drama about a trio of New Zealand students working at Disneyland who become obsessed with a prototype technology that lets them revisit their famous past lives. Like that show, Fred is Cold is one part precious magical realism and one part emotional sledgehammer. Unlike that show, Fred is Cold doesn’t suffocate under the weight of its concept.
Wilson’s scaled things back this time; a smart move, one that focuses Wilson’s storytelling and gives greater weight to what he’s trying to say this time around. Wilson tangles with complicated and loaded ideas about how we articulate and perform our grief and pain and the impact that has on the people around us. Josh grapples with the loss of his mother in messy, cold, counterintuitive ways, ditching his mourning father in Auckland and reassuring Sasha that he doesn’t need to talk about it, that he’s experiencing this loss differently to most and that’s okay. However, Wilson does his best not to treat Sasha, Fred or anyone else in Josh’s life as a nag. He doesn’t judge their need for Josh to perform his grief differently, regarding it instead with compassion and acknowledging that the ripples caused by someone dying or leaving can have unintended but just as valid effects on those people further out in the pool.
Wilson has a penchant for lengthy, unsubtle metaphors and he crams Fred is Cold full of them, even when they don’t do much more than reflect the narrative back to the audience and draw a circle around what it all means.
Too often, though, Wilson’s dialogue gets in his way. Wilson has a penchant for lengthy, unsubtle metaphors and he crams Fred is Cold full of them, even when they don’t do much more than reflect the narrative back to the audience and draw a circle around what it all means. Fred’s a particularly-abused vessel here, giving monologues about his past households that are often little more than thinly-veiled analogies for Josh’s life and the state of his relationship with Fred. It even gets to the point that Josh starts calling this out, at one point smacking Fred down mid-argument by telling him, “You’re talking about us.”
Wilson also takes the path of least resistance more often than he should, relying on storytelling techniques and rhetorical devices that are well past their use-by date. The second scene is dominated by that classic kind of expository phone conversation, Sasha telling her offstage mum all of the backstory and talking in such a way that we know exactly what mum’s saying in response. Lines like “You never truly know someone until they’re by themselves” start to accumulate and clog up the pipes, empty truisms that stand in the way of genuine insight. When Wilson has to cue up genuine emotional truth, it’s just as likely to follow a cliched exchange like –
SASHA: How are you?
JOSH: I’m fine.
SASHA: No, how are you?
– as it is to grow from something organic or unexpected.
These choices are pivotal because Wilson’s trying to communicate some difficult, complicated ideas; when the techniques and devices being used to communicate those ideas feel under-considered, it starts to bleed into how we receive the ideas themselves. That’s what happens here. Josh’s unwillingness to cry or actually say goodbye becomes a symbol for his reticence, something that Sasha, Fred and Josh’s brother Elliott (played by Wilson) all fixate on. But while Fred is Cold gestures at the problems with trying to dictate or prescribe someone’s response to great pain, the ending Josh gets feels all but inevitable – and inevitably reductive – because of those mawkish platitudes and tear-jerker metaphors. Fred’s adolescent struggles with depression are handled better, but, again, the metaphors Wilson uses to contextualise this struggle still feel too cute, especially when the character delivering them is an old fridge who behaves like a ten year old.
That’s not to say Fred is Cold isn’t charming or moving, thanks in no small part to the work of director Neenah Dekkers-Reihana and her crew. Michael Trigg’s lo-fi set design embraces the cliches of the ‘flat play’, with its Pulp Fiction posters and superfluous bookshelves, but Dekkers-Reihana uses these tropes as a way of highlighting the hinky, truly delightful design work elsewhere. These cliches push our attention towards stuff like Kelly’s white uniform, all mould stains and iced-over shoulders and an Iron Man-style pilot light in the centre of his chest.
The performances work, too, when Kelly, Bragg and McCreanor are given space to find their own rhythms. Too often they’re directed to hit punchlines and emotional beats like they’re on a sitcom with a laugh track, each line over-emphasised and standing on its own. Kelly’s boisterous physical presence is irresistible, though, even when he’s shut inside a hollowed-out fridge with only a head-height window to look out from. In contrast, Bragg plays Josh as someone who’s obviously irritable but tries to push that irritability out of sight for everyone else’s sake. When Bragg plays that friction, slowing down, using blinks and stray words like punctuation for all the thoughts barrelling through his head, he’s the most honest thing on stage.
Fred is Cold is blunt, always pushing hard to try and make a statement about how we perceive our own pain and how others perceive it, and the confusion and frustration that’s caused when those perceptions don’t line up. There’s nothing wrong with being blunt, and Wilson does line up some surprising and effective emotional gut-punches that clearly rocked the opening night audience. But his fondness for affectation does the show in, taking something complex and challenging and shaving off all the rough edges.
BATS Theatre, Wellington
from Tuesday 25 October to Saturday 29 October
For tickets to and more information about Fred is Cold, go here.