Review: Tristram Shandy: Live at London!, OSO Arts Centre

To celebrate his 240th year of having a book in print, the illustrious Tristram Shandy is touring the country to promote and celebrate his hilarious, obscure and unique autobiography. Of course, the usual sit down and chat with a host scenario is not enough for this eccentric gentleman and so he has brought with him a group of players to re-enact his life and opinions to allow watchers to truly get to grips with his book and, thus, his life.

Lawrence Sterne’s 17th century novel is notoriously enigmatic, allowing itself to innovative adaptations and Tristram Shandy: Live at London! from StraightUp Productions is as unique as any. Bubbling with energy and wit it manages to break down the puzzling book, elucidating the story somewhat without losing any of Sterne’s original humour and novelty.

The twang of a modern adaption is commendably unlaboured. We see Tristram (Tim Atkin) in discussion with the banal show host Alice who, it transpires, fancies herself as a stand-up comedian reaching out to a young and disgruntled audience – something we are inclined to believe will fail due to her frequent and terrible interjections of obscure political ‘jokes’ digging at the conservative government, austerity and tuition fees.

The acting is stylised, which is fitting due to the meta-theatrical nature of the piece. The actors tread the line ever so carefully between farce and periodic drama, leading to a production that is simultaneously hilarious as well as strangely believable.

There are moments of true genius from the director and writer (Will Dalrymple). A doll with a dildo is used to represent the five-year-old Tristram. A huge eye is brought onstage which sees Bridget speaking into the face-sized pupil. A five minute interpretive dance piece is vetoed by Alice for the sake of time- much to the players’ disapproval as ‘they only came on the promise we could dance.’ After which point they retire themselves and rush off disgruntledly.

The set is also an innovative contribution to Tristram’s fabricated fictional world. It is designed to look like pages from a book that have been ripped out (readers of the book will know that one of the pages is, indeed, torn out).  The bed is labelled page [163] and the two sides of the fire-place are torn halves.

In all, this is an enchanting performance. The laughter does not stop throughout, with incredible innovations flowing from every scene. If anything, this production allows audiences to claim, with only a hint of dishonesty, that they have finished Sterne’s ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ and without any grumbling or pain at all.

Tristram Shandy: Live at London! played at the OSO Arts Centre until the 8th November.

Alice Devoy

I am currently studying English at UCL. I write and direct plays and would love to work in theatre.