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Tristram Shandy: Conception, Cock and Bull – St James Studio, London

Writer: Laurence Sterne, adapted by Stephen Oxley

Director: Felicity Dean

Reviewer: Harry Stern

There is a real charm about Stephen Oxley’s portrayal of Laurence Sterne’s eponymous oddity depicted in selected episodes from his landmark work. He is warmly endearing, engagingly bonkers and, on occasion, gently acerbic. His meandering pontifications lead his audience by the nose through a cast list peopled with the idiosyncratic individuals which provide the canvas upon which The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is drawn. And a very odd assortment of creations they are, ranging from a recently conceived but yet to be born homunculus or spermatozoa to the fully blown lunacy of Tristram’s soldier uncle Toby, whose groin was crushed by an arrant piece of falling masonry at the Battle of Namur.

In reality what we are offered is a gentle, though possibly ground-breaking, presentation of what amounts to eighteenth century stand-up. Complete with its meandering down the cul de sacs of whimsy the evening contemplates the world of the utterly prosaic veneered with the absurdity that is the especial province of the story teller. As Shandy himself opines “digressions are the life and soul of a story.” The revelling in ninety minutes of mainly non sequitur is both the success of the evening as well as its shortcomings. For while it is entertaining, joyously so at times, its very lack of an urgent narrative makes it a delightful curiosity rather then a compelling piece of theatre.

There is a great deal to enjoy. Whilst Oxley occasionally stumbles whilst seeking for the right word or nicely turned phrase, he delights in the showy language and the richness of character he evinces with gentle bravura for his audience. In addition to the barmy uncle there is the aggressively dotty father, the distraught serving woman who witnesses the dismemberment of the five-year-old Tristram. She watches helplessly as the sash window, out of which the youngster is urinating, due to the unavailability of a chamber pot, comes crashing down and relieves the poor unfortunate of his manhood. Or to be more accurate, his boyhood.

A very simple stage on which stand a chair and a trunk serves as the whole of Shandy’s world and Oxley is left to draw his characters with a quickfire delivery nuanced with an ever-present wryness and understated mirth. It is very nice to be in his company. Felicity Dean directs with an economy and unobtrusiveness that allows the play to flow with grace and ease.

Critics found much to praise in Sterne’s work calling this friend of David Garrick ‘the man of humour – the toast of the nation!’ whereas Dr Johnson lined up against the writer whom he found ‘odd and sordid’. Today the writing has achieved classic status and, in theatrical terms certainly, has become diminished in its ability to provoke or shock. There is so much other writing that is more strident and more theatrical. This specialised marketplace is a competitive environment and this quaint oddity which ambles amiably to its preposterous and slightly premature end may not have the punch to do much more than divert.

Runs until 14th June

Writer: Laurence Sterne, adapted by Stephen Oxley Director: Felicity Dean Reviewer: Harry Stern There is a real charm about Stephen Oxley’s portrayal of Laurence Sterne’s eponymous oddity depicted in selected episodes from his landmark work. He is warmly endearing, engagingly bonkers and, on occasion, gently acerbic. His meandering pontifications lead his audience by the nose through a cast list peopled with the idiosyncratic individuals which provide the canvas upon which The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is drawn. And a very odd assortment of creations they are, ranging from a recently conceived but yet to be born homunculus or…

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