“Life is not a straight line or a circle. It’s a spiral, like a helix, like DNA. You think you’re back in the same place but you’re not,” says Danny Braverman, writer and performer of Wot? No Fish!!
When Danny inherits a shoebox full of sketches from his great uncle he is thrown into the world of his Great Aunt and Uncle, Celie and Ab, and their lives in the Jewish East End of London.
What at first glance appeared to be a shoebox full of scraps of paper, turned out to be shoemaker Ab’s tiny sketches drawn on the back of his weekly wage packets, documenting his life with Celie.
Using a projector and animated storytelling, Danny draws the audience into Ab and Celie’s world, from the 1920s through to the 1980s, their days documented through Ab’s lively drawings.
Danny, who teaches drama part-time at Goldsmiths University, said there were around 3000 sketches in total.
“I went through them all and absorbed myself in Ab’s world. I spent a lot of time creating a mosaic, it was almost like creating a cartoon strip,” he said.
“What struck me was, firstly, he was an amazing artist. Second was how honest he was. He was really saying something more interesting and in depth. At first glance they looked like the cartoons of the day, but I realised there is much more to it than this.”
He selected 70 wage packets for his first presentation. Themes began to emerge and he created a 40 minute power point presentation of the sketches in 2012.
An old friend, Nick Phillipou, came to see the show. The two had previously launched the theatre production company bread&circuses together over 30 years ago during their time at Birmingham University. The pair decided to revive the company and develop the show together with Nick directing.
Wot? No Fish!! has received much critical acclaim for its wide appeal. And a lot of this is down to Danny’s informal style. As soon as the audience arrives he is chatting away and asking them questions. This easy interaction continues throughout the performance.
“The show evolves all the time, it’s never quite the same twice. It’s supposed to be relaxed storytelling and people get pulled in by the informality of it,” said Danny.
At the beginning of each performance Danny hands out fishballs and chrayn (a dip made from horseradish and beetroot), a typically Jewish food, explaining how the bittersweet taste of the chrayn underlines the Jewish experience.
“I’ve had audiences where no-one has ever had a fishball before; they’re not familiar with Jewish food at all. Whereas in one audience at JW3 (a Jewish cultural centre in London), a third of them had a jar of chrayn in their fridges at that moment,” he said.
Using Ab’s beautiful drawings Danny takes his audience on a journey through Ab and Celie’s life; exploring familiar themes of birth, death, family and, evident throughout all of the sketches, Ab’s love for Celie.
“Something about the show connects on a very personal level. It goes from the particular to the universal. The central metaphors: the chrayn and the helix – the idea of bitter and sweet together – you feel like you’ve gone back to the same place, but actually it’s changed. These things are universal,” said Danny.
Each carefully crafted picture is drawn with wit and warmth, despite some of the serious topics conveyed. In one sketch, from 1939, Ab depicts the looming shadow of Hitler in the background, yet the rest of the image is comical.
While important historical events form the backdrop of many of the pictures, Ab spends just as much time illustrating their day to day lives, with frank snapshots of quarrels and even a few insights into the couple’s sex life.
“Ab paints a picture of the community. It’s the humour, well the irony really, it’s a take on life. That’s why the chrayn is so important, the bitter and sweet together, beneath all humour is seriousness, it’s all very serious stuff,” said Danny.
Just like the drawings themselves, the performance is warm, lively and heartfelt.
Jewish themes, portrayed through images of Friday night dinner and Ridley Road market, and the Yiddish expressions that pepper the performance immerse the audience into the bustle of East End Jewish life.
At times the performance feels so intimate it’s as if you were at the family dinner table with your favourite storytelling uncle.
“The purpose of the theatre that I want to make is to build a sense of community in a live performance with an audience,” said Danny.
Fish is, unsurprisingly, one of the central themes in the story. The smell of fishballs lingers in the air throughout the show and it makes an appearance in a number of the pictures.
“It’s a Proust madeleine moment. Taste triggers memory and smell. I’ve always been interested in theatre that uses multiple channels. Taste and touch, and all those things, are all part of the unified experience,” said Danny.
The writer learned a lot about his family from the drawings, but most poignant was the story of the uncle he never met, Ab and Celie’s son, Larry. Larry was autistic and at the time it wasn’t known how to properly care for someone with this condition, so he was eventually placed in a psychiatric hospital.
Danny spent many years working as director of the Orpheus Centre, an organisation that teaches life skills and performing arts to disabled adults, so Larry’s story was particularly emotional for him.
“Finding out about Larry was significant because I never met him and I didn’t know him and because I’ve been involved, in one way or another, in my personal life and in my work, in the field of disability rights. To find this lost history and to think, this is really representative of lots of disabled people who were institutionalised and rendered invisible forever. It’s something I’m very passionate about,” said Danny.
Since touring with Wot? No Fish!! Danny has discovered more family members he didn’t know about and has now met with several long-lost cousins as a result.
“The show is a gift that keeps on giving,” he said.
The true charm of the play lies within the simplicity of a good story. By performing it as a storyteller rather than an actor Danny reminds us of the power a good yarn can weave.
“In a way it’s a story about stories. They way we make meaning in our lives is through sharing experiences or sharing something creative and for me that’s telling a story with some pictures.”
Wot? No Fish!! is on at Battersea Arts Centre until July 19.
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