I was at the Lyric last night with the man who likes to be known as Barry. We were there to see Hard Hearted Hannah and Other Stories an exercise in ‘long form’ improvisation by Cartoon de Salvo. What this meant in practice, was three performers – Alex Murdoch, Neil Haigh and the Guardian’s comedy critic Brian Logan – attempting to create a full length play from a few audience suggestions and their own imaginations.
As we entered the studio the three were seated on a small stage playing songs that included Tears On My Pillow and, of course, Hard Hearted Hannah, on an array of instruments that included a banjo, a cider jug and a washboard. But this was just a precursor to the show proper. In order to get started they ask the audience for potential titles. Someone, Maxie Szalwinska I think, suggested The Obituarist – which is a play I’d happily watch but in the end they went for The Forgotten One.
They also asked the audience to pick three songs from their playlist. These three songs would then have to be incorporated in some way into the show, this pre-arranged soundtrack the only semblance of structure it would have. The story we got involved astronauts, aliens and lonesome strangers who lived in box cars (though, as is the nature of the exercise, Lyn Gardner got to see an entirely different show involving an Icelandic woman and a butler, called The Birthday Party in a wry nod to the current production in the main house). The songs included New Delhi Freight Train and Mama Told Me Not To Come. And, it was pretty funny stuff, but more fascinating by far was watching the performers, watching them pick up the narrative thread from one another and drag the story off in unexpected directions. Sometimes they appeared in sync, picking up on cues and forwarding the story together, other times they seemed to be tugging it in different directions.
There were inevitable lulls and there was also a fair bit of corpsing but the chief pleasure came in watching the thing take shape. It doesn’t – or at least it didn’t on this occasion – quite escape the ‘gag-centred’ approach of Whose Line and its like, but it was very entertaining indeed. I do wonder what would happen if they went for a more dramatic and less obviously comic set-up – that would be very interesting to see and is something that does often happen (as Logan has pointed out on the Guardian blog). The finished thing, in this case, may have been rather lightweight, but the process remained enthralling – the way the performers built on each other’s ideas, the unexpected leaps of imagination – and the piece they produced held together, a fully formed story. There is risk involved of course, the risk that the thing will fail to click together, will flounder and fall apart, but that risk is part of the appeal. I’d like to see another one if I have time. It’s a shame it’s not on for longer.