Wot? No Fish!!
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre
In 1926, an East End shoemaker living in Dalston began drawing pictures on the back of his weekly wage packet before handing it over to his missus. He continued to do so through the rest of their marriage until 1982 when Abraham Solomons’s beloved Celie succumbed to cancer.
That weekly image tells the intimate and intriguing story of their life together. It is a life full of love and its share of trauma that gives a private picture of a period that saw much change.
Ab Solomons was the great-uncle of performer and theatre-maker Danny Braverman and, when this treasure trove was discovered after the death of his uncle Geoffrey, he wanted to share it. With the collaboration of director Nick Philippou, this show is the result.
It is very simple. You could describe it as an illustrated talk, which would be strictly accurate but very inadequate and misleading, though it is just a man talking and showing Ab Solomons’s pictures.
Wot? No Fish!! is a very accomplished piece of story-telling that has now been told many times but this accomplished performer gives it such an immediacy and freshness you would think it the first time. Performer he may be, but this doesn’t feel like performance; it's a very direct experience, like a family member uncovering one’s own story, or the story of a generation or perhaps two that came before us.
The Solomons, as you might guess, were Jewish, Ab’s parents recent immigrants, and Braverman opens his show talking about fish balls, gefilte fish, a favourite food especially for Passover and Shabbat particularly with the Ashkenazi Jews, and offers each member of the audience gefilte fish and traditional khreyn dipping sauce to go with it.
The relevance of that becomes apparent as his story unfolds of this idiosyncratic picture collection, family background and the details of the life of Ab and Celie, their sons—the elder gay one became an art dealer, the autistic younger sadly put into an institution—and relations. They included Celie sister Lily who, on their mother’s death (their father abandoned them already), gave up her hopes of education and a career to earn a living and raise them—something she never stopped reminding everyone of later.
It is a touching story, funny and moving. The pictures include erotic feelings as well as hopes and holidays, aspects of class and income and family conflict. This isn’t just the story of one marriage; it feels like a story that could be anyone’s. For the last half hour of its ninety minutes, my cheeks were wet with tears, both happy and sad ones. Braverman presents it with such directness, simplicity and sincerity that you cannot help being moved.
You don’t have to be Jewish to respond to it; it will work its magic if you are the least bit human. Asked to describe theatre, this is not what you’d come up with, but what it does is of the very essence of theatre. If it comes your way, don’t miss it.
There is currently an exhibition of Abraham Solomons’s actual drawings and other material in the small gallery on the ground floor beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton