Made Up

Cartoon de Salvo
Soho Theatre

Made Up

Improvisation is a tricky beast; it lends itself to humour so easily, it's naturally unpredictable and it requires the integration of a DIY aesthetic into the formality of the show erupting from scratch; Cartoon de Salvo's Made Up certainly attempts to play with the rules of improvisation, capitalizing on the risk inherent in developing work in front of an audience, but also on the possibility for failure as a way to guide the narrative arch.

In Made Up, Brian Logan, Alex Murdoch and Neil Haigh devise an entire story from scratch with no pre-arranged structural backbone, alongside The Adventurists, an improvised four-piece band playing on a mix of instruments: harp, steel drum, double bass and violin. If the tone of the performance almost always tends to be light-hearted and playful, the company are fully engaged in its construction and in a play with this anticipation. When they jump at the chance to delve into the intricacies of a devised story, it's a thoroughly rewarding affair, although dramaturgical caution means that the company can too easily get wrapped up in tedious character portraits rather than playful plotting.

The most striking aspect of the piece is its lack of hierarchy; the band has an equal stake in the construction of the narrative, responding to the performers' decisions as much as influencing them. The musicians give the piece flavour, nuance and rhythm whilst the audience are more than keen voyeurs, providing the title of the evening's story.

Cartoon de Salvo meet the demands of their formal challenge, toying with the audience's expectation of what is about to unfold and capitalizing on the rules of improvisation to shape the story, making them surface and retracting them at different points to engage with the direction and internal logic of the narrative. Process becomes one of the most engaging aspects of watching improvised work, its transparency transforming the performance into both a technical and a narrative exercise.

This also becomes a way of controlling the audience's emotional involvement in the unfolding story, making deliberately impossible or surprising decisions, whether plot or character driven. The rhythm and shape of the story begin to crumble when the company spends too long making decisions or setting the scene; the performers take their time to establish the world they inhabit before shaping the central conflict, a process which is only enjoyable when the audience holds something at stake in the encounters they are about to have.

This is also what makes Made Up slightly generic and, at times, slippery; the performers set up so many rules in their process that the story develops as a challenge to resolve these early decisions, a tone that can detach the audience from the narrative if a dialogue is not strongly maintained. If humour tends to guide the piece- which Cartoon de Salvo master in their production, it can also overwhelm it, relying too much on slapstick and narrative loop-holes to shape the direction of the piece.

This is rescued with the use of gesture and character-based vocal work, elements that can dictate the genre of a shape-shifting story. At the same time, overreliance on mime and gesture can become a burden to the piece; fortunately, Cartoon de Salvo are skilled in turning problems into advantages and crafting engaging and entertaining stories in the process.

Cartoon de Salvo ask for a leap of imagination in an engagement with a story, and if the audience is willing to embark on a journey with them, they'll find it a thoroughly rewarding one.

Reviewer: Diana Damian