Review: Tristram Shandy – Conception, Cock & Bull

St James Studio

#Tweetingit – review in 140 characters: 5* – unmissable Thoughts of a gentleman + this is your life 18th Century Style = bawdy tales of conception, birth and romantic inclination

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Writing when properly managed is but a different name for conversation’…So said Laurence Sterne, creator of the legendary Tristram Shandy. Quite prophetic for an 18th Century novelist, bearing in mind emails and texts are now often looked upon as substitutes for real conversation. However, in the hands of the outstanding Stephen Oxley, conversation becomes king in this compulsive account of Tristram’s early life. Moreover, St James Studio provides the perfect outlet for a wonderfully consistent one man show. As Tristram, Stephen Oxley creates a relaxed atmosphere and uses the natural intimacy of the studio to great effect. He fixes eye contact with each and every member of the audience; shakes hands with gentlemen and discreetly kisses ladies hands’ seated in the front row. You feel privileged to be his confidante as he merrily romps through Act 1, a bawdy, funny and highly literate account of his conception and birth in 1718. Audience members are grandly dubbed ‘your worships’ and ‘your reverences’ as he carries us through a series of witty digressions along the way.

In Act 1, we are introduced to Tristram’s parents; his war obsessed Uncle Toby, amorous Aunt Dinah, officious maid, Susannah, decrepit butler Isiah and Uncle Toby’s magnificently titled man servant Corporal Trim. Each character is given life by Stephen Oxley’s skill with accents and ability to adopt a posture best fitting the character’s mannerisms. So good is he, you feel you know the characters even though they never appear on stage. Tristram goes on to regale us with stories of how he got his moniker, how Uncle Toby picked up his war wound and the mystifying family tradition for collapsed noses. His conception is hilariously imagined and explicit. The night of his birth is animated by the dramatis personae so skilfully brought to life by his own impressions. It’s almost annoying when Act 1 comes to an end just as the master story teller is getting into his stride.

Act 2 begins with the thoughts and opinions of Tristram, but he is quickly side tracked into an uncomfortable exposition of Uncle Toby’s attempts to woo Mrs Wadham, despite interference from her maid Brigit. Incidents involving sash cord windows are also described in minute and often excruciating detail. At 90 minutes including a 15 minute interval it seems all too brief as you feel there is much more Tristram could share with us. Two published volumes of Tristram Shandy would suggest there is more to be told. Stephen Oxley is an exemplary performer and it comes as no surprise that he has long been a stalwart of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It would seem an impossible task for one actor to hold court with just a casket and chair to assist him. But he completes the task with consummate ease. I think an 18th century stand up comedian would have sounded just like Tristram Shandy. But unlike his modern counterparts doesn’t resort to profanity, insults and aggression to make a point. This is observational humour at its very best.

Author: Laurence Sterne

Adapted and Performed by: Stephen Oxley

Director: Felicity Dean

Producer: Face to Face

Box Office: 0844 264 2140

Booking link: http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk/book-tickets/?event=19379

Booking until: 14 June 2014

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About Playhouse Pickings

Theatre blog run by Rhiannon Lawson; a civil servant, extreme tea drinker and theatre reviewer.
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