Theatre Iolo presents a bread&circuses production
at Sherman Cymru Theatre Cardiff
Entering the small studio of the Sherman Theatre, it was immediately apparent that the performance was in direct contrast to its quirky title. The not entirely unpleasant smell of fried fish wafted its way around the studio, emanating from three Tupperware boxes of Gefilte fish balls. With nothing in the way of introductions, our narrator for the evening, Danny Braverman, strolled to the middle of the room; a battered shoebox tucked safely under one arm and cheerfully started chatting up the audience as if he’s known us all for years – an unorthodox start to say the least.
The performance, brought back by Theatre Iolo, took a little time to get going; children were enlisted from the audience to hand round the aforementioned fish balls. We were invited to guess the three ingredients the accompanying sauce contained (beetroot, horseradish and love, of course) and a friendly “broiges” broke out between two groups of Jewish women as to the merits of fried Gefilte fish versus boiled Gefilte fish. Eventually the audience settled down slightly and “the story of a story” began. And what a beautiful story it was.
In 1926, Danny’s Great Uncle, Ab Solomons, drew a little doodle on his wage packet depicting the week’s events and gave it to his darling wife Celie. He would continue to do this every Thursday for the remaining 56 years of their marriage until Celie passed away from cancer in 1982. As Danny carefully plucked each wage packet from this shoebox steeped in family history, we were given a glimpse into the lives of this couple so obviously very much in love.
The drawings showed every facet of their lives together, confronting extremely deep personal experiences including their reaction to the outbreak of World War Two and Celie’s battle with cancer, as well as the happier times such as the birth of their two sons and a tasteful sketch hinting at a “delightful evening of nookie”. The candour in some of the depictions was remarkable; one drawing showed Ab and Celie sat in armchairs on either side of a towering brick wall, each silent and alone. To consider Ad drew this and presented it to his wife, not months later when they had reconciled, but in the very week in which they were feeling this separation, shows a staggering level of honesty.
But despite the truth at the heart of the story and the very real wage packets scooped out of the battered old shoe box, the performance lacked a little authenticity. The show had obviously been performed many times previously, causing the casual chit-chat tone and forced spontaneity of the piece to fall a little flat. With the subject matter so honest and personal, the piece would have benefited from a more forthright approach. However, Danny’s obvious joy and pride in sharing this wonderful slice of his family’s history was contagious, really bringing the story to life.
Some of the hardest drawings to view were the ones centred around the couple’s youngest son Larry. Severely autistic, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital where he lived for the entirety of his adulthood until his death in 1978. One particular sketch showed Larry uttering the heart-breaking words “You can go home now” to Ab and Celia during one of their weekly visits to him. Of course, with no supporting dialogue from the subjects of the pictures, many of the drawings were very much open to interpretation, but it was this one that brought a lump to the throat, as it spoke of the devastating absence of empathy which often accompanies autism.
The issue of interpretation was one which perhaps could have been handled a little more adeptly by Danny. It is impossible to know for sure the true intentions of these drawings, but as the nephew of this fascinating man it would not have been too presumptuous for Danny to be more decisive on the tale behind these miniature works of art – to create a full-bodied theatre performance, the raw materials require a little embellishment to weave the story together and whilst the foundations had been laid, it was too cautious in its delivery.
The story could also have been enhanced by a different choice in set design. The sparseness and anonymity of the set was strangely at odds with the overflowing character of the piece; a table, swivel chair and lamp which would have been more suited to an office were the only set pieces to speak of.
Despite its flaws, Breadandcircuses and Danny Braverman’s Wot? No Fish!! is full of charm and romance, showcasing one man’s devotion to the love of his life. The animated ending in which one of Ab’s drawings came to life was nothing short of adorable; the perfect happy ending to this true tale of love, history and far too many fish balls!
(Photo credit: bread&circuses)