Danny Braverman’s one man show, Wot? No Fish!! is one of the most thoroughly endearing pieces of theatre you’re likely to see this summer. It portrays the marriage of Braverman’s great aunt and uncle, Ab and Celie Solomons, which spanned from 1926 to 1982. Beyond the biographical content, the play provides a broader view of life in the Jewish community, as London passed through seismic, societal changes brought on by war, its aftermath and modernity itself.
The story begins with Braverman inheriting several shoeboxes stuffed with several thousand pay packets. On the reverse of each, is a cartoon illustration the husband created for his wife, sketching a recent scene from their marital life. The deeply personal archive depicts everything, from their gymnastic exploits between the sheets, to darker contemplations of divorce. What follows is a story of understated passion, Ab’s assiduous dedication to his craft is oddly matched by his great nephew’s passionate role as archivist, dedicatedly reconstructing and breathing life into the tale.
The play had its first incarnation at a scratch night in 2012. Despite significantly up-scaling the production, Braverman seems at pains to preserve the intimacy and dynamism of the original performances. His agenda as a performer is to make this a participatory, communal experience and he telegraphs this inventively in the opening moments, catching us off guard with an offering of fishballs. House lights up, the audience is coaxed into discussing their own experience of Gefilta fish (my audience was particularly vocal on the subject) and invited to weigh in on the fried versus boiled debate while younger members of the crowd are enlisted as waiters. The symbolic act of breaking bread effectively reframes the dynamics between artist and audience, forging an environment where we sit together as piers in a space where impromptu connections are encouraged. This is sustained throughout, Braverman masterfully picks up cues from his assembled guests, drawing them into the show and letting them steer its tone.
Though ostensibly depicting a humble tale of two soul mates, Wot? No Fish!! has an ambitious, philosophical scope. Braverman interprets the drawings searchingly, looking for grander messages with universal application. Throughout, he meditates on themes of love and redemption, attempting to configure a hopeful portrait of human nature based on the idiosyncrasies of his two relatives. At times, this hampers the material. One feels that he is imposing his own, rather sanguine, narrative on events. The abandonment of a child, for instance, is awkwardly vindicated then skewed into an example of the ‘immortalising power of art’. Towards the end, his determination to show that history is cyclical encourages him to overstate the serendipity of certain events.
Often, his exegesis of the images is fascinating and necessary. Yet, his overall optimism as a narrator and his efforts to identify harmony and order in the material dulls the impact of the story’s most poignant moments, which seem heavy with disorder and ambiguity. It’s the equivalent of straining to identify the shapes of vague constellations at the expense of taking in the powerful chaos of a starry sky; one wishes that the uncertainty was given a bit more space to resonate.
That said, though some of his conclusions feel strained, this a deeply moving and indeed life-affirming show. Necessary viewing for any cynics out there. 4/5
Review by Sean Gilbert.
Wot? No Fish!! is currently showing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (Southbank Centre) until Sunday 16th August. For more information on the production, visit here…