Red Rose Chain play with a Magic Fishbone to produce a Dickensian Christmas treat

Suffolk actor Jimmy Grimes has had a long relationship with theatre company Red Rose Chain – joining the company as a young hopeful before becoming one of the key production team members.

He’s starred on stage in their Shakespeare in the Forest productions, he’s directed workshops and appeared in several of the Red Rose Chain films. Now he’s got another string to his bow – puppetry director.

Jimmy has spread his wings and left Red Rose Chain to pursue a new career creating shows which not only feature puppets but blend puppets and people.

Last summer he took a new play, The Boy With The Cuckoo Clock Heart, to the Edinburgh Festival, which was greeted with good audiences and enthusiastic reviews.

Despite the success of the show he was facing an uncertain future as the summer drew to a close, but fortunately fate decided to step in and offer a helping hand.

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A job opened up on the best-selling National Theatre production of Warhorse and Jimmy was perfectly placed to step into the breach.

“I had applied before and not got the job but this time I was offered the position of puppetry assistant straight away. So I went from a position of facing an autumn and winter without any work to a secure job for 18 months at one of the top West End shows. It couldn’t be better.”

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Currently Jimmy is keeping an eye on performances and helping coach the current puppeteers through any problems they may have.

“At the moment I get to watch the show three times a week and keep an eye out for problems or potential problems, and then will have an opportunity to fix them before anyone notices.

“I also help the puppeteers try and resolve any performance issues they may have. We are always striving to make the puppets look as real as possible and perform as naturalistically as we can.

“For example, when the actors are interacting with Joey or other horses they are not standing there listening; they are always doing something. If they seem to be replying, then, sadly, they’re not. If they snort or neigh, it’s because they have just taken a drink from a bucket or have been nibbling some grass.

“Everything is done for a reason.”

In January Jimmy starts assisting the puppet director with the rehearsals for a new team of performers which will take over controlling Joey and the other horses from the beginning of March.

Jimmy says the secret of Warhorse’s success is that the puppeteers are all actors and they act through the horses. “You couldn’t do it if they had no connection to the horses.

“If it was routine then it would be as if robots were doing it. There would be no feeling, no emotional connection.”

He said that all the puppeteers study the movement of horses and then replicate it in the puppets.

“The secret of all good animation is in the details. When you are animating a model or a drawing, it’s not enough to make it appear to be walking along the road by taking a step because it would look false. We would recognise that something was wrong. It wouldn’t look real because we don’t just take a step. Our whole body is moving.

“The best animators would move the leg and foot to take a step but they would also move the head a little, shift the weight of the body, maybe put a smile on the face or raise an eyebrow. We are always interacting with our environment and with the people around us.”

He said that although animation and puppetry has long been a passion, he has not turned his back on acting. “If someone offered me an acting job, I certainly wouldn’t turn it down, but I have been hugely interested in animation since I was a boy. I used to animate crude Plasticine models, my Action Man figures, and it developed from there.

“Creatively, I tend to think about an animated performance rather than acting it myself. It really started to take off when I was doing a youth theatre project for Jo (Red Rose Chain artistic director Jo Carrick) and we started messing around with a papier mache puppet.

“In order to animate it I tapped into the mask work we had been doing and went back to the stop-animation work I had been doing since I was a teenager.”

He said there was a strong link between animation and acting. Thinking like an actor allowed the animator to get inside the head of the character being brought to life.

“It’s all about character. It’s all about creating a person or an animal that can not only interact with the other cast members but can also relate to the audience.”

This is Jimmy’s speciality – creating puppets that not only work as puppets but can also slip seamlessly into a show with human characters.

“Whenever I read something now, I find myself asking: ‘Can this be done better with puppets? Would they tell this story in a more interesting way? Is there something that could be achieved more effectively with puppets than with actors?’”

This is work that he had started developing with Red Rose Chain, providing animated characters for their Theatre-in-the-Forest productions during the summer before he struck out on his own.

Now he is back in Ipswich, lending his talents to Red Rose Chain’s first Christmas show, The Magic Wishbone – an adaptation of a Charles Dickens Christmas show.

Happily, the National Theatre don’t mind Jimmy keeping busy with other projects and he is now throwing himself into The Magic Fishbone – providing two puppets: Clyde the talking fish and a villainous dog.

“The key job of an animator, whether it’s on screen or on stage, is to make the audience and the fellow actors believe that this inanimate object is alive – that it has weight, muscle and substance.”

This was what was uppermost in his mind when designing what turned out to be a talking fish skeleton.

“It was quite a challenge – particularly when I read the original short story. But, I have to say that the task has been made easier by Jo’s bold treatment of the story.

“When I first read it, I thought that it was a nice story but not a classic. It worked well on the page but I couldn’t see how it would transfer to the stage.

“Then Jo got hold of it, worked her magic and came up with a very bold, lively script which really brings out the character and magic in the story, and suddenly the whole thing explodes into life.

“In the Dickens original, it is a just a single magical fishbone, whereas in our version it is a whole, talking, fish skeleton – just like one of those cartoon fish skeletons which is topped with an untouched head and tale.

“This then provides a focus for the audience and for the other actors, and provides something for everyone to interact with.”

The story propels the audience into the heart of Victorian England. There is a family that is living in quite difficult circumstances. The father is not well paid and is quite poor at balancing the budget.

“He has debtors knocking at the door and he goes to buy some fish on credit for the next meal. Instead of buying some cheap fish, he buys this expensive salmon and as he does so this old woman appears and says: ‘Ah, you are the father of Princess Alicia. Tell her to keep the fishbone. Polish it, keep it safe and when the moment comes, she can make a wish.’

“Of course, he goes home, doesn’t give his daughter the wishbone, keeps it for himself, tries to use it himself and nothing happens. He thinks it is just a joke, he’s been had, but when Alicia finds out, she finds the wishbone and keeps it safe.

“The family continues to fall on hard times, the mother is ill, the brother gets bitten by a dog, and she refuses to use the wishbone. She keeps looking for other ways out of their problems and it is not until every other way out of their dilemma has been explored that she finally makes her wish.

“That was the moral of Dickens’ story. Before you ask for help, before you make your wish, you try your best to fix the problem yourself. It’s not a big moral lecture but it’s a little thought which fits quite nicely into an entertaining family show.”

Director Jo Carrick said the fact that the show is being staged in Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, will immediately give the performance some added atmosphere.

“It’s just amazing surroundings. We are very used to transforming spaces. We did a very successful run of Different Buttons at St Clements hospital earlier this year. We do our annual Theatre-in-the-Forest performances in the summer, which is the ultimate in space transformation because we just have a clearing and some trees to play with; and of course we did the Anne Boleyn story Fallen in Love in the grounds of Gippeswyk Hall.”

She said that with work due to start shortly on their new studio and theatre building at their Gippeswyk Hall home they wanted to introduce audiences to the idea of Red Rose Chain doing a Christmas show.

“I have been wanting to do a Christmas show for some time. It was just a question of finding the right subject and the right space. When our new theatre space opens at Gippeswyk Hall we will be doing a Christmas show there, but I thought it would be nice to get the ball rolling now.

“I wanted it to be a family show rather than a kids’ show. I wanted something that everyone can come along to, whatever their age, and get something out of it. Dickens is brilliant for that and The Magic Fishbone works perfectly as a Christmas story – helped by Jimmy’s brilliant puppets. They help bring the whole thing alive and make it really fun.”

Jo said they wanted to provide a different experience for the audience that regularly supports their summer shows at Rendlesham.

“We have a large, enthusiastic audience and we wanted to provide them with something to come and see at another time of year, and Christmas seemed to be perfect.

“Hopefully it will help more people develop a regular theatre-going habit.”

n The Magic Fishbone, by Red Rose Chain, runs at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, until January 13.

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