Ridley Road market in London is one of those pockets of the city that flotsam gathers in, people of no great prosperity, some born five minutes away and others all over the world. Around one corner is the house where Danny Braverman’s great-uncle Ab and great-aunt Celie met, married and started their lives together; even when they moved across London to Golders Green – a rung up the ladder of self-improvement – Celie would return to Ridley Road to do her weekly shopping. Around another corner is the flat where I grew up, the daughter of immigrants from Cyprus, cheek-by-jowl with the descendants of people who had experienced pogroms in eastern Europe and war across Africa and slavery in the Caribbean and colonial rule in Asia and the Middle East. I, too, return to Ridley Road when I can, and praise a pantheon of gods that it’s managed to retain its raucous, shambolic character when so much of London is being destroyed by tax evasion, gentrification and the invidious influence of estate agents. When Ridley Road falls, all will be lost.
That market was one of many points of emotional connection for me with Braverman’s story; everyone who goes will have their own, whether it’s the interfering granny or the oracle of mum, the favourite uncle who remembers every birthday or the cousin living a double life, the anxious tedium of time spent in hospital or the acute guilt of failing to comprehend a loved one’s disabilities. And those are just the flourish of details; what binds them all is a love story – not a soppy romance but a quotidian tale in which hard work, arguments, frustration and disappointment are as evident as passion, humour or fun. I loved it so much when I saw it at Battersea Arts Centre in 2014 that when I heard it was coming back to the South Bank Centre I immediately bought tickets to see it again, this time with my parents. It’s that kind of show.
Like Ridley Road, Wot? No Fish!! resists change: it is perfectly formed, and doesn’t need to adapt itself for new times or new audiences. Braverman flavours it with foods from the old world: the bitter horseradish and sweet, earthy beetroot of chrain; the softness of boiled gefilte fish and the crunch of fried. These choices are neither incidental nor arbitrary; they also reflect the story’s complexity, potential for dichotomy and invitation to interpret. Braverman tells it through the drawings made by his great-uncle on a series of wage packets – some 3000 in all – which he gave to his wife, first containing her housekeeping money, later through force of habit and, who knows, an awareness that he was constructing an autobiography, a life in microcosm, and to end it would be to hasten death. This isn’t Braverman’s reading: Ab drew, he says more than once, because this humble shoemaker was deep down an artist – although to have made that his actual work would have been as unnatural to him as eating bread during Pesach. His art is that of the miniaturist and the cartoonist: character, comedy, story and sadness caught in a few deft lines. It was on these wage packets that Ab communicated every feeling, every fear and desire, he couldn’t speak out loud. That isn’t Braverman’s reading, either: it’s my mum’s.
This is the perfect show to see with people who don’t go to the theatre much, particularly people who’ve lived a bit, slowed down a bit, whose rose-tinted glasses have faded to brown. I’ve missed the start of it both times, through general bumbling and the specific incompetence of London buses, and Braverman has been entirely relaxed about that, a generosity that extends through the rest of the show, in his invitation to audiences to treat this as a conversation. Sometimes that dialogue is prompted through questions; sometimes it just happens, as different people respond, unselfconsciously and almost involuntarily, to the beauty and substance of Ab’s drawing, or to some notion suggested by Braverman’s narration. For my dad that happened with an infectious chuckle when Braverman, swamped by an ill-fitting suit, described himself as a schlump and proud; for my mum, with his description of kvelling, old Jewish people swelling with pride at the achievements of their grandchildren, vying over photographs as if playing top trumps. “Just like the Cypriots!” she murmured – and for Cypriots, you could exchange Nigerians, Indians, you name it, all those people who wash up in London and make this city vibrant and liveable, despite the best efforts of racism and mainstream politicians to keep them out.
Because yes, Wot? No Fish!! has a new resonance in these days of refugees struggling to reach Europe and build new lives. It’s a story of survival: the survival of Ab and Celie’s ancestors who escaped persecution; the survival of their autistic, epileptic son, albeit in dispiriting circumstances; the survival of these stories of insignificant people of no great prosperity, first in Ab’s tiny, unassuming illustrations, and now in Braverman’s performance. Everyone deserves at least the chance to survive. Humanity demands it.