Over at the Gate and Bush theatres respectively, artistic directors Christopher Haydon and Madani Younis are interrogating the ways in which plays are made. At Soho Theatre, Cartoon de Salvo are also exploring this question but from a different angle. Their new show, Made Up, asks: ‘Can a play be improvised and performed in 90 minutes?’ The answer is yes, but the pressures involved in doing so means it won’t be a great one.
In a studio strewn with festive bunting Neil Haigh, Brian Logan and Alex Murdoch approach their task with energy and flair. They use the old Whose Line Is It Anyway? tactic of plucking their titles from the audience. On this particular night we end up with ‘Hunting the Shark’ which sounds like a Hollywood action film. To his credit Haigh, who begins the proceedings, steers the story well clear of the obvious narrative avenues, but, frustratingly, the show we get instead is somewhat lacking in action. The company’s improvisations are played primarily for laughs, but there is also an attempt being made to create a serious character-based piece. This results in a lot of thinking and musing. This introspection enriches their efforts, leading to moments of emotional connection and succeeds in turning their made up effort into more than just a comedy skit, and something more dramatically satisfying. But this thoughtful approach also results in far too many empty silences which takes the wind out of the show’s sails.
Fortunately The Adventurists, a four-piece band of musical improvisers, are on hand. These guys repeatedly save the day with interjections of brilliant folky jazz. Their presence gives some much needed momentum and thrust to what is at times a saggy narrative. They are more than just accompanists, they are accomplices, with a nimble and witty way with melody. It’s exhilarating to watch them as they spark off each other with such confidence and imagination.
Haigh, Logan and Murdoch have a similar rapport, and though they’re less dazzling, there’s a generosity to the way they work with one another. No one steals the limelight and the piece is peppered with moments of synergy. The piece as a whole is less impulsive than one may at first imagine; Made Up has a tightly constructed framework within which the performers can play. Each mistake or fumble is quickly amalgamated into the piece and the audience always feel in safe hands. On the flip-side, this strips the show of any real danger and the piece is perhaps not as open to the ‘live experience’ as Cartoon de Salvo may have wished.
For all Hunting the Shark’s charm and sporadic melancholy it isn’t quite tight enough or potent enough as a piece of theatre to hold an audience’s attention over the full length of its running time, or fully capture our imaginations.