Using beautiful line drawings projected on to sheets and screens and with songs both jaunty and melancholic, Cartoon de Salvo tell the tale of the eponymous giant, an 18th century celebrity much adored by the public and much coveted by the medical profession for his anatomical extemes.
With the infamy of 19th century murderers, Burke and Hare, lodged firmly in the public's consciousness and a growing movement lobbying Britain to adopt an opt-out approach to organ donation, (not to mention reality TV's freak shows) Charles Byrne's story has plenty of contemporary resonance. Byrne was the genial giant ("Nobody loves surgeons, but everyone loves a giant") who drank a lot, talked a lot and lived a lot, before dying aged just 22 (as giants do). His corpse was acquired by medical teacher John Hunter (via, so the play suggests, murky means), and his 7ft 7in skelton is still in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. How, and why, it got there is the question explored in 90 minutes of contrasting drama.
Cartoon de Salvo's roots are in improvisation and the looseness that comes with such an approach works both for and against this production, their first with a known story. On the downside, the links between set-pieces can feel a little under-rehearsed, as the actors play off each other, looking for cues; slightly clunky scene changes also slow the pace of the plot, as actors become musicians and props are wheeled on and off. On the upside, the chemistry between the performers sparks and crackles, with Neil Haigh's slapstick balancing off Brian Logan's mordant Ivor Cutlerish delivery as Hunter and Alex Murdoch's creepy bodysnatcher.
Presented in the crypt-like Vault space at Southwark Playhouse, The Irish Giant is a dark comedy with a serious point to make, asking questions with wit for which the world, even now, lacks the wisdom to provide answers.
The Irish Giant continues at Southwark Playhouse until 9 June.