Richard Hurford
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal

Elizabeth Bower, Adrina Carroll, Andrew Dunn in iShandy Credit: Karl Andre Photography
Elizabeth Bower, Iain Armstrong, Adrina Carroll in iShandy Credit: Karl Andre Photography

Damian Cruden's directorial contribution to the Theatre Royal's 'Made in Yorkshire' season is a loose adaptation—in fact a 'response to'—Laurence Sterne's classic, epically meandering novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

In approaching the unadaptable source text, writer Richard Hurford presents, in the first half, the meta-story of a group of schoolteachers getting together in their spare time and in costume to discuss Sterne's great work. A series of sub-Ayckbourn relationships are quickly sketched, and it all seems somewhat predictable.

The plot thickens when the newcomer to the group, like Godot, fails to arrive on time, instead sending messages in the guise of Tristram. But this thin intrigue, and even the use of frequent meta-textual nods to the events and famous passages of the novel, fails to counteract the lazy, loose stereotypes of the characters and gags. It comes across as the epitome of dated rep theatre, and it is bemusing how Hurford can believe that so much mileage can be gained from endless innuendos around the prospect that a pair of male friends of advancing years might be—gasp—gay.

The cast travail gamely, but it seems to me that the writing sells Sterne short. The first half gives the impression that Tristram Shandy is nothing but a stream of weak innuendos and 'bawdy' humour. Much of the comedy this far hinges upon awkward offbeats and repeated references to the pig testicles which the hostess of the evening is serving up as a snack to the book club.

The second half, however, attempts to mirror the book's stream-of-consciousness, self-aware form, becoming more flowing in its approach to place and character, forgetting the book club, commenting on the way the book club has been forgotten, and so on. In a way, Hurford has attempted to construct a piece impervious to criticism: by claiming that the stilted rhythms and lazy innuendoes of the first half were ironic, the play tries to have its cake and eat it. So the character representing the 'Footnote' at one point observes of the gay jokes, 'the writer got on that hobby horse and rode it in the Carry on Camp sweepstakes'.

But acknowledging your flaws is not the same as mitigating them. One of the problems here is that, whereas Sterne's book is a pleasure to read (at least—as is suggested at one point in the production—to dip into in bits and pieces), I found the play rarely pleasurable. The second half toys with the postmodern idea that the actors are aware that they are actors performing in a theatrical version of Sterne's work, but though there is some inventive direction, such as a 'radio play' sequence, none of this is novel—many of the 'meta-theatrical' elements of the production have been employed for many years, and to much better effect, in pantomime.

It's the style of the thing that's been forgotten here. Hurford's conceit hinges on his observation that we never get to know much of Tristram's life, beyond the basic facts of a few bathetically comic events. Yet what this interpretation fails to recognise is that throughout Sterne's work we get a picture of Shandy, through his distinctive narrative voice. Sterne gives us the joy of reading a self-styled stylist reaching beyond his verbal means.

This is one reason that the 2006 film adaptation, Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story, was so much apter than this stage version: its leads, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, understand the comic mileage and pleasure to be found in that gap between what a character aspires to and what they finally find themselves capable of—indeed, both have made careers of playing this. Hurford's endless repetition of the same 'testicles' gag never aspires beyond the mud; Sterne/Shandy soars majestically towards the heavens before time and again plummeting to earth.

For an amusing (if also flawed) take on Tristram Shandy, watch Winterbottom's film; for a captivating Yorkshire-based evening at the theatre, do catch the excellent Theatre Royal Studio production of Angels & Insects, which succeeds in finding a form much better suited to its source material.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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