The great pleasure of Stephen Oxley’s one man show, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, is seeing the spirit of the book brought to life so perfectly on stage. Tristram Shandy is unlike any other book. It is digressive, eccentric, engaging, sometimes silly and sometimes erudite. We hear the voice of the narrator speaking directly to us as a reader throughout and all these characteristics are used in the show by Stephen Oxley as he questions his audience or appeals directly to them. Tristram himself is brought to life for us to tell his tale and introduce both himself and the characters in his life story but this is not all. I was also reminded of what it was like to read the book and this is a trick that is far harder to bring off. There was a lovely moment when Tristram sits in the audience to see if he can do without himself as a character and waits and watches the empty stage for a few moments before concluding that it doesn’t work. That is pure Sterne, surreal and funny.
The play is an extremely clever piece of editing and structuring, using Sterne’s text, which leads us through the labyrinth of the novel giving us all the best bits without sacrificing the unique nature of Tristram Shandy’s rambling voice. The staging is flexible and varied. The audience are drawn into the narrative by direct involvement, asked questions and shown things and there is a childlike delight in waiting to see what is going to come out of his trunk next.
St Helen’s church is a perfect venue, with its memorials to members of the good humour club and it allows a perfect start to the show when Laurence Sterne gives up on the worthy sermon he was preaching to us from the lectern and goes into character to have fun as Tristram. This is exactly what I feel Sterne was doing in writing the book- cutting loose and enjoying himself.
You should read the book- of course you should- as it’s an underrated and influential early novel but seeing this show is a great way to get to know what it is all about. If you can’t meet Tristram on the page you may as well meet him in person. Anyone who has read the book or seen this show will know that the two are one and the same thing. You can’t often say that and it’s probably the best compliment that Stephen Oxley could hope for. A great way to celebrate Sterne’s 300th birthday.