A battered old shoebox full of, not secrets exactly, but definitely a more private kind of treasure, is the fragile source matter for this delicately judged piece, half lecture, half performance. Danny Braverman’s great-uncle Ab drew cartoons on every wage packet he handed over to his wife Celie, decorating her housekeeping allowance as an act of love, penance for his failings, and for the sheer, evident joy he found in art. His great-nephew tells the couple’s story, as well as tracing his own path to and through this treasure; with archive-gloved hands, he sorts the mounds of envelopes into loose narrative lines, sketched over a period of sixty years.
The drawings themselves are full of character, and lose none of their strength in their amplification from three-inch high relics to bright, screen-filling projected icons. At one point, Danny describes them as outsider art, but although Ab was untrained, there’s nothing naive or fantastical about his style; his drawings start with a classic 1920s look, slim, pert and stylish, which rounds out into naturalism over the decades, before the joyous addition of colour when their author retires. They’re like newspaper cartoons for Ab and Celie’s marriage, documenting and commenting on the minutae of family life, as politics and war rumble in the background – when Hitler pops up, its to nix their annual trip to the seaside.
Danny’s approach is part thematic, part chronological. He carefully paces his own discoveries, the revelations about his shared past, as he moves from the first 1920s envelopes into the present, but also uses groups of linked envelopes to pull out broad themes like disability, aspiration, and the Jewish migration from Dalston to Golders Green. There are also smaller, quirkier motifs — like the family love of fishballs, and its male members’ inability to look like anything but a schmuck in a suit — which poke a cartoon finger at Danny’s own foibles, as well as pointing to a much wider Jewish experience, and its shifts and schizsms through the twentieth century.
Danny is an incredibly likeable storyteller – with Nick Philippou’s direction, he manages to feel like a fishball offering family friend, desperate to tell you about something great he’s just found. Every unfolding suprise feels like its fresh to him, too, still exciting. His interpretation of the pictures is precise without ever feeling didactic, but you can’t help learning a bit about looking as he points out easily-missed details, slumped shoulders here, a missing Sunday suit there, and offers gentle speculation on what Ab was trying to say.
The images aren’t postcards from a seaside holiday of a life; the pair’s annual trip to Westcliff was forever rained off. Instead, they shift from love letters to war dispatches to subtle digs to memorials to messages to Celie that, built on an emotional context we can’t dig up like old newspapers, can never be deciphered.
This brilliant performance has the same shifting feeling, sifting through crackling masses of paper to find grains of truth, and golden flashes of insight.