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.
There is no way, easy or otherwise, to describe Tim Crouch’s latest play, Adler & Gibb, so that it makes sense to the reader. Despite seeing more than 100 plays over the last three years I cannot recall another production that feels so elusive that I am left suggesting that the only way to understand it is to experience it. As a play it is defiantly high-concept, deliberately infuriating and fully aware of the challenge it makes of its audience. Having roundly trashed Mr Burns for pretty much identical reasons it suddenly becomes apparent how fine the margins between success and failure really are.
Not only is it difficult to describe, it is hard even to talk about it in a way that doesn’t make it sound like the most appallingly self-indulgent piece of pretentious, beard-stroking metropolitan claptrap. If it sounds to readers that I damning Adler & Gibb with this review then I can only echo Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony eulogy and the dubious claim that he comes ‘[… ] to bury Caesar, not to praise him’.
Tim Crouch does not tend to make plays with easy answers. In Adler & Gibb he has made a play without easy questions. Like a magician he lays subtle clues with one hand – a neat reference to the Maine lion that gives a hint to the identity of the actor – whilst at the same time misdirecting with the other – the changing story behind the napkin.
Yet the crucial factor is that despite arriving at the interval with a general sense of befuddlement and feeling close to displeasure at the opaqueness of the first half, Crouch has still built an atmosphere of trust; that this a play worth persisting with. It has an intangible quality that nags away at the back of the mind that you are on cusp of something quite special, and that if does fail then at least it will fail spectacularly.
To start with a description; Adler & Gibb is about a conceptual artist, her relationship with Gibb, their retreat from the world and what happened after. Or Adler & Gibb is about a student looking for scholarship funding through a study of Adler and Gibb. Or Adler & Gibb is about an actor who used to be a student who is making a film about Adler and Gibb. Or Adler & Gibb is about an actor playing Adler who meets Gibb, who tells us the story of Adler and Gibb. Or it is about different mediums of art, the tones they employ and how it affects the narratives they tell and the stories heard by the audience. Or it is about all of this and none of this.
To start at the beginning; the play opens with a presentation from a student about Adler and Gibb. She is eager, passionate and delightfully gauche; instantly recognisable as someone who has been inspired but lacks the articulacy and the knowledge to present her views as we might expect. She tells us the story of Adler and Gibb but through it is digressive, fractured and jarringly myopic.
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