Lyric Studio, London W6
Opened 20 May, 2008

To an extent, Cartoon de Salvo are the architects of their own partial failure. The programme notes that most British performance improvisation is based around the individual gag, and that this show in contrast grew partly from the company’s discovery of long-form improv which tells a full-length story. However, virtually no such story will be as crafted, detailed or generally content-ful as a prepared show (whether from a script or a prior devising process). Therefore, we don’t watch the result in the same way as other theatrical endeavours; in the absence of a sense of complete form, we do look for the gags, or for discrete moments of enjoyment.
Gags and entertainment there are in elegant sufficiency, although in some ways the second strand of inspiration further detracts from a feeling of wholeness. Inspired by an American-style jug band, the de Salvos have worked up a repertoire of numbers on guitar, mandolin, banjo, washboard and/or kazoo; at the beginning of each evening, the audience propose a title for the tale to be told and select a clutch of songs to be played during the piece. The story and the musical imperatives may pull in opposite directions; while it was amusing to see Neil Haigh try three times during the press-night show to cue his fellows into “Mama Told Me Not To Come” before Brian Logan and Alex Murdoch picked up on it, I couldn’t help feeling that their efforts might be better directed elsewhere.
But the trio do work well together. The long-form improvised theatre that I have seen hitherto has involved a non-performing controller “calling” the basic set-up of each scene in advance. Here, things flow with complete spontaneity; even when two performers find themselves offstage at the same time there is, as Jeremy Paxman would say, no conferring. They also enjoy jump-cutting, so to speak, from one scene to a radically different one, as during the performance I saw (entitled The Forgotten One) when a captive astronaut and a strange, howling alien suddenly transformed, without change of lighting or posture, into an odd couple in a small-town pizza parlour. Nor is there any clock-watching: an impressionistic sense of time combines with the story taking as long as it takes to tell. It’s all fun, but not as much more as it wants to be.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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