Photo Credit: Courtesy of Daniel Cainer
Gefilte Fish & Chips
June 29, 2019
British import Daniel Cainer’s one-man show, “Gefilte Fish & Chips,” drew a capactiy crowd to Urban Stages to revel in the humor and humanity of his stories-in-song about four generations of his Jewish family in England. As well as performing the show, Cainer wrote and composed it, and functioned as his own one-man tech crew and orchestra.
Full disclosure: I would have been the fourth generation of my own Jewish family to have lived in England if my mother hadn’t married an American and emigrated here in the late 1950s. But though I grew up in the U.S., I spent many summer vacations in England, living with my grandparents and getting to know the English side of my family. Daniel Cainer and I are age peers, and I had a strange, nostalgic sense that in an alternative universe, his songs could have been the stories of my own life.
It started with A Tale of Two Tailors—one of whom was Cainer’s own great-grandfather—who met on the boat from Eastern Europe to Liverpool, and decided to thrown their lot in with each other, until a business dispute ended their partnership. The business dispute—in Cainer’s version, at least—involved one tailor (Cainer’s ancestor) stealing the other’s idea of covering rows of buttons with a flap of material, and becoming rich, while the other tailor continued scrabbling for his family’s bread. The successful partner, Montague Maurice Burton, became something of a tailoring impresario, owner of a chain of menswear shops celebrated for their ready-made three-piece suit, known as “the full monty.”
According to Wikipedia, Sir Montague Maurice Burton, then just plain Meshe David Osinsky, started out in England in the then-Jewish neighborhood of Cheetham Hill in Manchester in 1901. At that time, my own great-grandfather, Isaac Gordon, had a successful tailoring business in Cheetham Hill, and his youngest daughter—my grandmother Millie—had just turned three. Had Isaac cornered the menswear market in Cheetham Hill, and is that why Montague Burton left for Sheffield, which, a century later, featured as the setting for the movie “The Full Monty”?
Cainer’s songs are long—often ten to twelve minutes—and musically discursive, but held together by recurring refrains and themes which become richer with meaning as they reappear throughout the song. The show is extremely portable: Cainer, his electric keyboard (on which the “Yamaha” logo has been fiddled with to read “Yamalka), and a PowerPoint projector, which Cainer works himself while seated at the keyboard. A screen above Cainer’s head provides a visual companion narrative to Cainer’s stories, with vintage photos of Cainer ancestors and nostalgic shots of the bygone world of which he sings: the Battersea Peasure Gardens where for a shilling you could try your hand at “tipping the lady out of bed;” the booth at Butlin’s Holiday Camp where Cainer recorded his first song at age 10, self-accompanied on ukelele; the foggy black-and-white 1950s London skyline of The Ballad of Naomi, where, while the Naomi of the song was dating a shaygitz (non-Jewish boy) and turning her back on her faith, my own aunt Joan was turning her back on her two-timing first husband.
Cainer’s pleasant, unpretentious voice and homey North-of-England accent, and his low-tech set-up give the show a sense of intimacy that perfectly complements the warm family stories that are its content. When Cainer sings about the extramarital affair that tore his parents’ marriage apart in Washerama, it’s as if a brand-new friend were sharing fresh intimacies across a table over the course of a long afternoon at a diner.
Cainer remarked that when he does the show in the U.K., he has to explain the Jewish references, but when he performs in the U.S., he has to explain the British references. This he did with the visual aid of his PowerPoint, and those references encompassed everything from a half-crown coin to a 1950s-vintage hot-water heater. It was a classic example of how the specific evokes the universal. On the way out, emotional audience members surrounded Cainer to thank him for a transformative afternoon of cabaret.
Cainer is slated to return to New York City for an off-Broadway run of “Gefilte Fish & Chips,” and I wholeheartedly recommend this heartwarming and highly unusual show.