It has taken Wot? No Fish!! a while to reach the Battersea Arts Centre. After spending two years in development, it premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Festival before working its way through the regional theatre circuit then finally arriving in London just as Edinburgh begins for this year’s crop of hopefuls.
Except this isn’t quite true. The story we are told pre-dates all of this by the best part of ninety years, and the show was already there just waiting to be found. For Danny Braverman has pieced together, drawing on his own family history, a far more tender and moving story than could ever be realistically crafted in fiction: the life of an East End Jewish shoemaker and his family told through the weekly sketches he gave to his wife on the back of his wage packet.
It may be told with all the simplicity of a fairy-tale but the magic is created in the natural complexity of the lives of real people. It is a story of a family who may not have encountered witches, dragons and quests but instead must confront argumentative sisters, the threat of war and a move from the East End to Golders Green.
This is the story of Celie and Ab Soloman and we hear about their lives through Braverman whilst seeing it brought to a vivid reality through Ab’s miniaturist cartoons; it is less a play and more an illustrated aural biography. Braverman has made a wise decision to not perform the story because he has realised that all the drama exists in the pictures; he recognises his role is to explain, to be our guide through the lives of others.
The production has a few touches that hint to its past life at Edinburgh, perhaps some will find the slightly whimsical delivery irritating and the attempts to engage the audience a little heavy-handed but this is just part of the charm of a production that is constantly reinforcing a sense of community and of shared stories.
As Proust starts with a madeleine so Braverman starts with fishballs. And if you didn’t already know you were entering the close knit world of east end Jewish families then the references to gefilte fish and chrain prove something of a clue. It is the memory of this snack that accompany him on a trip through hospital and it is the recurring motif that Braverman returns in order to continue unravelling the lives of Celie and Ab over time.
Braverman acts as a curator of the work. The care with which he has unpicked and ordered the events is staggering. There are over 3000 works in total and we are shown a carefully woven selection to build a richly textured picture of two lives that we never knew existed before walking into the room. By the end of the journey (inevitably it must end and like all human journeys it can only end in one final destination) we feel we know them as well we know our own relatives.