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Malwina Comoloveo

Where are the ‘feckin fish?!

20 June 2014 Charlie Kenber

“If you want to see the most diverse audience across class, gender, age, colour, background, go to a Hackney Empire or Theatre Royal Stratford East panto.”

For Danny Braverman, theatre is all about community. Sitting in one of his favourite spots in the heart of Dalston, Danny talks passionately about his background in theatre in education and work that directly interacts with a community. “I’m always interested in the act of writing being a dialogue with communities,” he enthuses, “that seems to me a really interesting way of going about things.”

Theatre in education, Danny convincingly explains, is an ideal way for theatre-makers and storytellers to cut their teeth. “It’s an extraordinary discipline for anyone working in theatre because you have to think about things you wouldn’t normally have to if you’re just playing it to a generic audience. Kids tell you if you’re boring, you know if a show isn’t engaging.”

Both of these approaches are instantly recognisable in his latest show, the curiously titled Wot? No Fish!! The production took Edinburgh by storm last year, and is taking hold of the Battersea Arts Centre for an extended run this July. The starting point of the show is as unique as its name: a series of wage packets which one Ab Solomons (Danny’s Great-uncle) illustrated for his wife Celie every week from the mid-1920s all the way through to the ‘80s.

When Danny first investigated the wage packets with a possible project in mind, they’d already been rediscovered a couple of years earlier. “I’d never seen them, they were always a legend” he says. “I had no idea of their quality, I had no idea of how extensive the collection would be, or that there would be this strong narrative. I think in my head I thought they were whimsical cartoons, but when I discovered them I found there was much more to them.”

The images provide a remarkably open insight into the lives of Ab, Celie and their children. “One of the things about him is how honest he is – which for me is the hallmark of a great artist,” Danny continues. For Ab, producing the pictures became something of a weekly ritual. “He was a relatively religious guy – we know that he went to Synagogue and he celebrated Passover, but I think what he wanted was something regular. I think the making of the art was part of that rhythm. It’s what makes meaning in your life.

The complicated process of turning such artefacts into a performance began with Danny identifying the most story-rich of Ab’s drawings and paintings. “I would find key moments – one of the things for example is that their youngest son was disabled, and they had to institutionalise him. So every so often you see things and go ‘that’s a clue to the really difficult decisions they made’. When I find a picture like that which tells a bit of that story I put it to one side. From about 2500 pictures I found about 70 that told a story.”

The subsequent process of refining the show perhaps surprisingly held many of the hallmarks of crafting a standup comedy routine. “I told the story as a kind of improvised storytelling,” Danny tells me. “That meant I was getting instant feedback. So I would take it to lots of different audiences: Jewish, non-Jewish, young people, inter-generational, all kinds of people.” Responding to my comparison, Danny affirms that, “It’s interesting that the worlds of storytelling and standup are getting blurred a bit these days. I remember seeing a documentary about how Eddie Izzard develops his stuff, which is done through improvisation, starting with one very small idea.”

Clearly the show has been an immensely personal experience for Danny as much as anything else. Could it be performed by anyone else, I ask? Interestingly, this is something that Danny and his director Nick Philippou have been discussing recently. “One of the reasons I chose not to have a career as a performer years ago is I didn’t really want to do the same thing every night. I think [having someone else perform it] is interesting because it adds another layer, and it’s the thing about this project as a living, breathing organism. If it was me churning out the same thing every night it would get stale.”

Danny’s work always has a broader audience in mind than most, and this is certainly true of Wot? No Fish!! “This is a piece that works for all audiences. A lot of theatre feels like it’s very targeted to some kind of niche demographic – actually despite what a lot of theatres say their policy is.” Contrastingly, “I’m interested with what happens with the community of an audience in a show,” he adds.

“I’m a big fan of panto by the way and I’ll never denigrate it. If you want to see the most diverse audience across class, gender, age, colour, background, go to a Hackney Empire or Theatre Royal Stratford East panto, and there you’ll see it. But if you want something with a little more heft and philosophy to it, then this works on that level.”

So why should you go to see the show? “Our audiences go on an emotional journey,” Danny responds, “they laugh and they cry. At its best I think you will be put through an emotional wringer. So if you want a detached experience and you want something cool and arch and hip maybe it’s not for you. Hopefully you’ll go on a journey with me and the rest of the audience. How often does that happen?”

With more than a hint of a wry smile, Danny adds as we part, “there’s a very remarkable twist in the tail, and I’m not going to tell you it, because it’s the jaw-dropping moment at the end of the show....”

Wot? No Fish!! is on at the Battersea Arts Centre from 1st – 19th July. Tickets from £12, available here.

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