• Comedy
  • Adapted and performed by Stephen Oxley, from the books by Laurence Sterne
  • Directed by Felicity Dean
  • St James Theatre, London
  • Until 14th June 2014
  • Time: 19.45
  • Review by Richard McKee
  • 9 June 2014
Tristram Shandy – Conception, Cock & Bull
3.5Reviewer's Rating

Nothing odd will do long”, opined Dr Johnson.  “Tristram Shandy did not last.”  Laurence Sterne, the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was not to be overawed by the Great Lexicographer, whom he dubbed “that great Cham of literature”.  And Tristram Shandy did last.  Coming out in nine volumes between 1760 and 1767, the work has continued to be read up to the present time, and was the inspiration for the recent film Cock & Bull Story, starring Steve Coogan.

Stephen Oxley does not attempt to condense the nine volumes.  But in a virtuoso performance, with a powdered wig and the attire of an 18th century gentlemen, he gives us the essence of Tristram Shandy.  The St James Studio is primarily a cabaret venue, with the audience seated at small round tables and sipping drinks from the bar.  The intimate atmosphere allows Mr Oxley to make the audience fully a part of the show, circulating around the tables and having a word in the ear, or kissing the hand, of the unsuspecting spectator.

The chief characteristic of the eponymous narrator is his inability to stick to his narrative.  He cannot help digressing.  He goes off at a tangent whenever he recollects something about a person or incident, and never takes the shortest route from A to B.  For most readers of the Life and Opinions this has been a source of great amusement, but for some a source of mild irritation.  Mr Oxley produces the former rather than the latter sensation in his audience.  Admiration is also excited, for the wholly natural delivery of the 18th century English, replete with orotund latinisms, and indeed the occasional Latin, as in the quotations from a fictitious dialogue on noses.  This elaborate and elevated style is applied to a subject matter that is anything but elevated, centring round the private parts of Tristram Shandy himself, his father and his uncle.  That, of course, is another source of the good humour in the show.

How Tristram’s father botched his begetting (one sense of the Conception in the title); how Tristram’s delivery was botched, so that he was bereft of the long nose traditional in the Shandy family; how another appendage of Tristram’s was foreshortened by the accidental fall of a sash window; how his uncle Toby received a wound in the groin at the Siege of Namur in 1695 and how this affected his wooing of the Widow Wadman – all this were better left to the excellent exposition of Mr Oxley, who jumps from the role of narrator to the role of the character concerned, with the apparent ease that is the fruit of much hard labour.

All in all, this is great entertainment for a literate audience with a love of language and a broad sense of humour.

About The Author

Trustee & Reviewer

Richard McKee is a lawyer, and used to be a judge, but despite that (or because of that) he likes comedy, cabaret and pantomime.  These are the things that he reviews for Plays to See, for which – in view of his great age – he is also a trustee.  He leaves the serious stuff to the young!  But seriously, though, he thinks it is a great idea for young reviewers to hone their critical faculties and communication skills by writing for Plays to See, and feels privileged to be involved in its current expansion.

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