'Made Up' review or 'You couldn't make it up. Or could you?'

'Made Up', Cartoon de Salvo
Soho Theatre, Wednesday 4th April 2012
Written for Culture Wars

Getting down with the improv. Photo Credit: Edmund Collier

Improvised shows normally include and cater to people with short attention spans. Whilst they're often great fun (the theatrical equivalent of strapping yourself into a low-level electric chair), they rarely leave a lasting impression. But Cartoon de Salvo, who celebrate their 15th birthday this year, are playing the improvisational long game. They aren't interested in quick-fire gags and instead create sustained, improvised plays, kick-started by just one cue from the audience. It is a brave and rewarding approach but, as impressively substantial as this improv show might be, it sure does sag in places.

There's only so long a purely improvised piece can sustain itself and, running at over an hour and half, this show is much too long. Such a lengthy running time would stretch even a talented playwright, who has the luxury of rewrites – and it certainly over-stretches this plucky trio of actors. Lapses inevitably occur. The gang return, too often, to dull sketches and dud characters and spend far too much time scrabbling about for a worthwhile or 'tidy' conclusion.

Still, I watched 'Made Up' on its very first night, so hopefully the show will be ruthlessly cut and reined in. 'Made Up', made tighter, would be a fine show indeed. Cartoon de Salvo's dedicated and thoughtful approach to improvisational comedy allows the actors to settle into their roles and flesh out the context. It means we aren't just watching reactionary acting but substantial, albeit parodied, performances, playing against a nicely textured backdrop. It also means that, by the end of the show, the stage is heaving with an extraordinary range of characters, as the actors hop about the stage, literally jumping from one role to the next.

The trio - Brian Logan, Alex Murdoch and Neil Haigh - also makes clever, comical use of their own limitations. Often, the most pathetic, ant-climatic lines are the funniest. It is the pause, as an actor attempts to summon up a sharp quip and finds himself wanting, that creates the biggest laughs. 'I am...a war machine' certainly wouldn't be a classic line in a scripted play but the contrast between the pure effort etched on Haigh's face, and the banality of his eventual effort, is comic gold.

The gang also trust each other implicitly, despite the fact they constantly – and consciously – trip each other up. Much of the joy comes from watching one actor throw the other to the wolves; 'I can't wait for you to tell me lots of details...' All this witty camaraderie is enhanced by onstage band, The Adventurists, who seamlessly integrate themselves into the show. They pick up the slack when the drama gets saggy, playfully coax the actors into performing songs and amplify the atmosphere. That is the equivalent to six people wordlessly writing a play together, which is nothing short of a miracle.