December 11, 2023

Wot No Fish!! Outsider art story-telling at the Battersea Arts Centre

It was a mistake to eat the fish ball. Not being used to gefilte I spent the whole performance with an unpleasant taste in my mouth.  Normally if a stranger offered me a tupperware box filled with unidentifiable objects that they called fish-balls I would demur – for a fairly lengthy set of reasons. But this was the start of Wot? No Fish!! at the Battersea Arts Centre.  Maybe having tasted a fish-ball  – and the peculiarly solid sauce that was offered along with it – would be vital to an understanding of the show.

It isn’t, so if you go and are offered a cold fish-ball on a cocktail stick feel free to shake your head and let the box move along the row. Still it’s not often that a performance starts with the whole audience being given something to eat, so chapeau to creator and performer Danny Braverman for a memorable beginning to the latest Bread and Circuses production.

Most people have inherited a cardboard box of old family paraphernalia after the death of an aged relative and such a box was the catalyst for this show. Wot? No Fish !! is based on a lengthy series of drawings made by Braverman’s great uncle Ab between the 1920s and 1980s. There are hundreds of examples of his wobbly sketching style, all drawn on the back of small wage envelopes. They start off as quick line drawings and become more complex and colourful after his retirement. They never lose the naive quality and together make a visual diary of his life, taking in love, marriage, war and sister-in-law disputations.

Braverman is a storyteller and teacher with over thirty years experience. Where some might think of displaying the pictures in an exhibition – and most would put them back in the shoe box without another thought – he saw the potential to use them as the basis for a live story-telling production. However, at one point the images have been animated and this gives a glimpse of what could have been a more engrossing, if less-unusual, method of using the images.

On the stage is a table with a small light, whilst a large white screen hangs on the back wall. Enlarged versions of the drawings Braverman places under the light are projected on the big screen. Braverman has edited down the number of images used, but even so there are a lot of them. He projects them and talks about them, what they remind him of, what he thinks they are saying, what his mum remembers about people in them. Ab was a shoemaker and a Jew. Shoemaking figures little in the story, but Jewishness looms large. Fish dishes have a large place in Braverman’s own memory and the fish balls get the audience in the mood for much mention of Jewish foods, Jewish words, customs and jokes. For those not au fait with things Jewish Braverman does explain most of the phrases, but you’ll get most out of the show if you know the (seemingly minute) difference between schlub, schmutz and other similar sounding derogatory words. Ab was a schlub and Braverman proudly claims to have inherited that characteristic.

He is an enthusiastic and engaging presence and well suited to this unique way of telling the tale of life through the 20th century. But there are periods when it feels like you are watching a man gleefully looking through his own family history. Which he is. This can be interesting,  but like holiday snaps there is no doubt that family images are more interesting if they are your own, you know the people in them, or you know the locations.

Braverman uses the collection to ponder the nature of history, deciding it is neither linear nor circular, but – more-trendily – double-helix shape. Whilst some of the images have comments or content that is clear, the drawings are the basis for much conjecture about the relationship between Ab and his wife and other members of the family.

The drawings bring up general points about the treatment of the disabled, east-west migration of Jews across London (‘all that glitters isn’t Golder’s Green’) and the attitude of the Jewish community of the time to holidaying, marriage and brothers-in-law. Braverman clearly finds the story fascinating and though the production is built on a succession of faded outsider art images, it is his enthusiasm that carries the show.

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