Humour is normally dry, sarcastic, musical, full of one liners, topical or humdrum, or a mix of a couple of them, but hardly ever all six. The Irish Giant, by the fifteen-year-old Cartoon De Salvo, is playing this week and is bringing with it cleverly amusing and thoughtful songs, fabulously terrible jokes that make you cringe, wit as sharp as a scalpel and intriguingly comical stage magic tricks that, charmingly, seem to surprise the three talented actors as much as the audience.

Having never come across Cartoon De Salvo’s work before I was delighted to find that live music was a part of their rich tapestry, combining humorous lyrics with a the smooth sound of a double bass, an acoustic guitar and a tiny, teeny, tinny piano. These songs wove the show’s narrative together like a seam on a surgeons coat, as a frank anatomical discussion kicks off the show and brings about the story that the title suggests: of the eight-foot-two Irish man (played by Neil Haigh) and his journey from fame and liquor to notoriety and liquor to legend and liquor to death. Brian Logan’s surgeon John Hunter wants to cut up, study and display the poor giant Charles Byrnes’ remains after his liquor induced death (did I mention he was a drinker?), but not before we get to know the dear and unwilling Charles and empathise with his death-watch and eventual friend, played by Cartoon De Salvo’s Artistic Director – clearly a woman with many talents – Alex Murdoch.

Taking on a story that is well known and rather notorious in itself is no easy feat, and this was a simply wonderful play that immediately established a down-to-earth and amicable rapport with the audience – something I rarely come across. They broke the fourth wall as if it were the most natural thing in the world and I instantaneously felt like a medical student (with as little knowledge of medicine as the 17th century characters did) in a fabulously lit lecture hall. I was filled with same thrill as a student would when, occasionally, my teachers would roll out the projection screen and show a film. Sure, they’d speak over it (or in this circumstance, sing) but it was nice to have poetic images shown to me so I could stop taking notes for a minute. One of my favourite moments in a favourable performance was when the players took to their instruments (of the musical kind) again and perfectly, along with some projected cartoons, illustrated a drinking culture that has, if anything, only worsened over time, whilst showing the slow but very in-your-face decline from drunken joy and revelry onto drunken sorrow and pity. Alex Murdoch’s comical timing was magnificent and I didn’t think I could laugh that much after a particularly tiring day – this was what most of my applause was for.

I’m a stickler for accents and I must say, Charles Byrne’s Irish tinkle was sweet and unblemished, John Hunter’s Scottish drawl was established and Alex Murdoch played a mint cockney. This pleased me.

The show wasn’t entirely flawless, with some clumsy set changes and not-quite offstage change-arounds, but these were forgivable and sometimes added to the charm of this upfront and clever performance. You were seeing these actors in all their glory (not literally) and with the multitude of characters effortlessly formed, I was nevertheless enthralled. 

The Irish Giant, at Southwark PlayhouseHeather Deacon reviews Cartoon de Salvo's The Irish Giant at the Southwark Playhouse.3