The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. St Helen’s church, Stonegate, York.

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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.

img277-lrgThe 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.

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Female Gothic. Dyad Productions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

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Rebecca Vaughan in Female Gothic.

The one woman show, Female Gothic, three Victorian stories written by women, adapted and performed by Rebecca Vaughan, is a small gem of a show- especially if you enjoy a gothic shiver up your spine in the same way that the original readers of the stories did. I am not going to spoil them by giving details but all three are fiercely expressive and rich in highly charged emotion, melodramas full of death, human frailty and moral fervour, tapping into universal human fears. They still work in exactly the way that they did when they were first written thanks to the fact that what makes a rattling good story will never change. The adaptation has been very well judged. It doesn’t flag for a moment and there is no trace of wordiness or lengthy description to move the focus away from the people at the heart of each tale. The links between them are cleverly done, especially the one which leads us into the final story.

What I liked most about Rebecca Vaughan’s performance was the combination of intensity and low key naturalism. There is more than enough high melodrama in the words, we don’t need it in the performance as well. So long as there is complete conviction in what is being described and a real connection with the audience the stories will speak for themselves. It is a very stylish, self assured performance which we can trust completely and this is vital if you are going to spend a long time watching a single figure and listening to a single voice. There is quite beautiful detail to watch which allows you to see people and things which are not there and a touching honesty behind everything which is said that allows you to believe it. Nothing is more powerful than a simple piece of storytelling in a dark space when it is done well.

The piece was directed by Guy Masterson, someone who knows just how a one man show works from years of experience, and there is exactly the right mix of stillness and movement, light, shade and darkness to keep it moving forward and hold our interest. Both he and Rebecca Vaughan should be very pleased with both the fine detail in this production and the sheer theatrical good taste which have brought these stories back to life. It would have been so easy to do this kind of thing badly, but you get everything that you are promised in the publicity and more.

The Gospel of Matthew. George Dillon. Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 30-03-13

gospel_of_matthew_2008George Dillon has been performing his one man show The Gospel of Matthew for a number of years now. He has made this form of theatre his own, and it is easy to see why as it suits his style. He is a powerful performer, mesmerising to watch, who is technically very skilled, in complete vocal and physical control of his performance and brim full of conviction, a theatrical pile driver who can also be gentle and subtle when he needs to be.

The Gospel of Matthew also suits him perfectly. This is a Jesus who has a passion for social justice and a fierce intelligence, a Jesus with no fear of authority. There is nothing meek and mild here. It is the Jesus of the gospels, not that of flower arranging and cups of tea with the vicar, and it is strong meat. This man was dangerous to the authorities of the time and he was prepared to take them on on his own terms. It was only going to end one way. Whether you believe that he was the son of God or not is irrelevant, this is a compelling story which drives forward with great force. Hearing the whole gospel from beginning to end told by a master storyteller gives you the whole man and you are able to watch the complete arc of the story play out inevitably in front of you.

It is a very simple piece of storytelling, a single figure lit by candlelight on an empty stage, but we are not simply given a recitation. As the story unfolds we see not only Jesus, but a proud centurion, devious pharisees, befuddled disciples, a haughty Pontius Pilate who is full of distaste for what is being done and many more. These characters are conjured up swiftly and accurately, sometimes we are shown what they are thinking by a single pause or gesture. It is all done with breathtaking speed and precision. This is grand acting kept in check by perfect physical and vocal control, there to serve the story and calculated to make specific points. It is George Dillon’s own translation of the gospel but it stays close to the original, there is no clever modern reworking, just quite subtle touches which clarify and underline the meaning for a modern audience.

It is a very upfront and uncompromising piece of theatre. There is nowhere for the audience to hide as George Dillon insists on your attention, making eye contact and forcing you to listen. I was on the front row and when he pointed straight at me, glaring, and declared that I was the salt of the world there was no doubt that this was a direct challenge, not a compliment. The smart older lady who I shared the lift with after the performance was still bemused. She shook her head at me and admitted, “I’m not sure what to think after that powerful performance”. She was alone and I’m guessing that she was a local churchgoer who had fancied a nice Easter treat by candlelight. It hadn’t been the Jesus she was expecting but maybe not being sure what to think was exactly the result that the show deserved. Too many people, whether they are militant atheists or bible bashing Christians, think that they know the truth. It’s a lot stranger and more real than most people allow themselves to think. Through this show you can examine yourself and your own attitudes in the company of a great actor telling a great story. That’s enough to be going on with.

John Hegley. Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 31-04-10

John Hegley began his career as a performance poet at the comedy store thirty years ago and he has been spreading the word about dogs, the glory of wearing glasses, love, loss, Luton bungalows and potatoes ever since. He also plays mandolin, works in schools and performs all over the country with a strange kind of laid back enthusiasm, and just for good measure he is also a charming cartoonist. All of these skills come together wonderfully when you see him on stage. There is nobody else quite like him. Not surprisingly, he now knows exactly what he is doing and his understated but absolute command of an audience is enormous fun to watch. His performance seems random, and sometimes it is, but nothing is left to chance and there is a fierce intelligence running through everything that he does. You have to keep your wits about you and listen hard or you may miss the killer punch to something that seems slight, as hidden in the fun there is  a certain amount of melancholy and some serious points. For instance, his throwaway comment that his performance was dedicated to “those with teaching difficulties” made you laugh at the incongruity but also remember exactly why he was saying it ( see here for more details) and wince a little.

This show The Adventures of Monsieur Robinet is partly based on the show that he took up to the Edinburgh festival last year, but it is also a way of trying out new material for the festival this year and giving us a few old favourites like Amoeba and I Need You. There was a sequence based on a picture of an Owl drawn by his fifteen year old daughter which illustrates very well how he works. It was a lovely picture but when he didn’t say so quickly enough she crossed it out in frustration. Later he made the crossings out into a lattice window and wrote a moving and thoughtful song about the incident, reminding us to share our feelings with those that we love before it is too late. We were shown the drawing (on a trusty and defiantly old fashioned overhead projector) as he explained all this before gathering information from a member of the audience who recognised the quite obscure species, and finally playing the song. The bedrock of the show was the story of the relationship between his French grandmother, a dancer at the Folies Bergere, and his grandfather. He showed us the scene where they met again, after many years of separation, using an empty chair to symbolise his grandfather, and it was both very funny and moving. There was plenty of audience participation- there always is at a Hegley gig- and people were asked to sing, read out some simple French, wave and tap their glasses, mime letters of the alphabet, and more besides. Finally those fortunate enough to be wearing spectacles were invited to dance to Walk Away Renee while swapping glasses with each other. All of them loved it.

There is something wonderfully English John Hegley’s work, even if his ancestry is part French, it’s something about understatement, the way that he celebrates the ordinary minutiae of everyday life and draws conclusions from small things that may sometimes have large truths to show us. When you add to that a large dose of stage presence and killer comic timing you really do have something to treasure. It isn’t the first time that I’ve seen him live and it won’t be the last.