All theatre contains an element of uncertainty. The potential for variation is part of the appeal of live performance: the knowledge that no two shows are ever going to be exactly alike. But while text-based theatre at least has a structure, a set path to be followed, with improvised theatre the safety net has been removed, the performers are left totally exposed, solely reliant on their imagination and ability to think on their feet.
Cartoon de Salvo is a theatre company that specialises in improvised theatre. For a lot of people the term ‘improvisation’ may initially bring to mind Paul Merton Josie Lawrence and that lanky Canadian chap messing about on Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Though often very funny, that kind of improvisation was, in the main, parlour game stuff, primarily concerned with grabbing a laugh before quickly moving on to the next set-up. It was bite-sized, insubstantial. Cartoon de Salvo are more interested in Long Form improvisation, a method of theatre-making concerned with creating whole shows out of nothing, in telling satisfying stories without the aid of a script.
At the start of Hard Hearted Hannah And Other Stories, their current show, the company asks the audience to suggest a title for that night’s performance. Among the shouted suggestions The Obituarist sounded promising, but in the end they went for The Forgotten One. The audience are then asked to select the soundtrack for the show. There is a playlist of titles to choose from, all of them familiar songs: Tears on My Pillow, Mama Told Me Not To Come and several others, all tracks that share a narrative quality. The three songs that are picked will at some point have to be incorporated into the show. This is the only thing the performers know in advance, everything else is made up as they go along.
The story that they spin from these limited ingredients turns out to be a somewhat silly sci-fi adventure featuring a couple of astronauts, an alien vessel shaped like a billiard ball and a brooding loner called Jessie who lives in a box car. At times the performers Brian Logan, Neil Haigh and Alex Murdoch seem to be wonderfully in synch with one another, while at other times they seem to be pulling the story in conflicting directions. Inevitably, while there are some moments of comic brilliance (Murdoch’s mournful waling alien is very funny indeed) there are also a fair few lulls and dips. But it’s fascinating watching the actors watching each other, seeing them pick up a particular thread and run with it, spinning the plot in increasingly odd directions.
Amazingly they manage to tie everything together into a reasonably satisfying whole. They succeed in creating a story with a beginning, middle and end; they even find time for sub-plots. The three songs are cleverly inserted into the narrative, with the cast playing the instruments as well. (They have a number to choose from including a banjo, a washboard and a cider jug).
The finished story may have been frothy and absurd, but the beauty of the exercise is that the next night’s performance will be completely different. On the night I attanded the results were feather-light but fun, they could easily shift the tone in a darker direction and still retain the same level of invention. As I said at the start, the knowledge, even in the most polished of shows, that what you are seeing will never be replicated in quite the same way again is part of the magic of theatre. A show like this really brings that home. Some nights it may produce something amazing, but they’re just as likely to produce some duds along the way. Yet despite that element of risk, of uncertainty, I was left feeling incredibly keen to go again and see what they come up with next time.