Video: Red Rose Chain’s King Lear, a Canadian puppet called Jeremy and me

Who says playing with toys is a waste of time? For a young Jimmy Grimes, opening a box of old action figures opened up a whole new world as entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE finds out

WHEN a self-conscious 13-year-old Jimmy, freshly arrived in Ipswich, sat down to play with some old action figures he couldn’t have imagined he’d still be doing it more than a decade later; admittedly with much better toys and in much bigger rooms.

He’d always loved drawing; he still has pictures of himself aged six obsessing over his cartoon books and drawings not dissimilar to those in this year’s Red Rose Chain Theatre in the Forest programme.

“I remember when I was 13 and moved to Ipswich I had a box of action figures. I went to get them out and remember thinking ‘I’m too old for this now’. I felt a bit self-aware. Wallace and Gromit had come out and I started making and playing with plasticine models instead, in my own head that was okay,” he smiles.

“I had a dodgy old Betamax video camera I’d borrowed and started doing some stop-motion animation, moving these models about and I carried on doing that right up till my late teens. At the same time I started working with Jo [Carrick, Red Rose Chain’s artistic director] as a young actor and she started involving me in the visual side of things.”

Jimmy’s been involved in the design of Theatre in the Forest show for years now; working on puppets for the last couple of productions and this year’s King Lear.

Sadly he won’t see the fruits of his labours this time. Excitingly, he’ll be in Edinburgh with new show The Boy With the Cuckoo Clock Heart during Lear’s run in Rendlesham Forest.

Most Read

Adapted from the French book it’s a fantasy set, to begin with, in Edinburgh about a little boy who’s born on a really cold night and his heart’s frozen.

This very unconventional midwife decides to fix it by fitting a little cuckoo clock into his chest to keep his heart beating. As he grows up in her orphanage she says “don’t upset your heart because it’s very weak. You can’t get angry and you can’t fall in love”.

Of course he does and the story is about him learning how to love, learning how to take heartbreak and how to move on.

Pitching the idea, Jimmy didn’t expect it to get anywhere but got an e-mail just before Christmas from acclaimed theatre company Les Enfants Terribles to say he’d been shortlisted and needed to put together a 15-minute sample of the piece he wanted to take to Edinburgh by the middle of January.

“I manically put everything together, made a puppet, had four or five actors I’d worked with before with puppetry and said ‘look it’s last minute can you come’? We worked for a couple of days putting together a sample, went along and were completely gobsmacked when we won,” he says, holding a puppet head he was making the previous night for the show; his face full of glee as we talk plasticine and rubber casting.

“It meant we had �1,000 towards the development of our project and Les Enfants Terribles give you their support and their experience in taking a show to Edinburgh; that’s something they’ve done so many times now so they’re really very valuable in that sense. That got the ball rolling and Jo and David [Newborn, show producer] at Red Rose are very supportive of the project and have come on board as well.”

It’s been a big step.

“When you’re on a low budget and you’re pushed for time you end up doing everything. Because I happen to have the practical skills I’ve ended up doing quite a lot. I wanted to write the adaptation which I’ve done, I’ve got some beautiful music written by local composer Richard Healey and I’ve also ended up designing the show as well as directing. It’s a bit mad.”

Whether it’s his own show or Theatre in the Forest, he admits it’s more stressful now then when he was 13; what with having a deadline, a budget and all the rest of it. When he’s actually making a puppet, when he’s in the moment, he feels just like a 13-year-old experimenting again.

“I can use rubber, which as a 13-year-old I could never have used. I could never have mixed up this bizarre chemical ingredient and poured silicone rubber so yeah it’s like I’ve got better toys suddenly,” he laughs.

The inclusion of a puppet in this year’s Theatre in the Forest was more unusal than others thanks to a trip to a junk and antique shop in Amsterdam.

It’s there Jimmy recruited Red Rose Chain’s latest cast-member - a 1930s Canadian ventriloquist dummy by the name of Jeremy McCarthy who been sat on the shelves for many years.

He and Jo had talked about using a dummy for the role of the Fool; something King Lear would carry and speak with, but dismissed it early on.

“It’s that kind of idea that as you get older and more power you revert to almost being a child again. I saw this little doll and thought it was wonderful. I took a photo, sent it to Jo and said ‘look, I know we didn’t run with this idea in the end but it was a great idea and I’ve seen this chap and it would be lovely to use him’.”

It was five days before he bought him, going in every day for another look and bartering with the owner.

“I had to try not to be bewitched; when it’s a drawing in my pad and we’ve got five different ideas I’m pretty impartial. Once you pick something up you immediately begin investing. I found myself being very attracted to the idea so we tried to have a very cold detached conversation about it and I tried to argue every reason not to get it. By the time Jo had seen a few photos she was really into him.

“I could have sculpted something like this and then cast it but there’s something about using something with its own history and its own charm that is just really attractive. It’s got some stories about it.”

The mechanism for using Jeremy was as basic as it comes; a single piece of leather string coming out the back that worked the mouth. Adaption was needed.

“This was my job and we put a handle on the back of the head. If you want Lear to walk on just holding him and make him talk he needs to do it all with one hand.

What we don’t want is for the puppet to completely bind the actor into being restricted physically.

“The unusual thing in a way is that King Lear is bringing on this toy doll and he isn’t a puppeteer, he’s someone who has this toy. Certainly for the first part of the play what I’m trying to do with Ed [Day, who plays Lear] is make him as bad a puppeteer as possible. As the play moves on the way the puppet gets used starts to get a bit more exciting.”

To find out more about that you’ll have to see King Lear which runs until August 26.