Pros: A lively and funny cast, superbly suited to this fast and eccentric comedy.
Cons: It takes a while to get to grips with the characters and their unconventional fixations. But these are made clear as the play progresses.
Tristram Shandy: Gentleman is an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s sprawling anti-novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Published in the mid-18th century in serial form – nine volumes across seven years – it’s a beast of a book. Known for the digressions and interruptions that complicate a simple and domestic story, it is a challenge to any theatre crew to attempt to convince an audience of its almost impenetrable charm. This production at the Tabard Theatre goes for the laugh every time, and that they get nearly all of them is due to a great big dollop of physical comedy, served up by the Micawber Theatre Company.
Tristram recounts what are his formative experiences – his conception, birth, christening and accidental circumcision – all of which are rife with indecency and misfortune. And as he tells these scenes, they are enacted to good effect around and about him. You soon realise that much of what has gone awry in these calamities are more the result of his father’s (Walter’s) obsessive and wrong-footed convictions that have played out as self-fulfilling prophecies. It is very entertaining to watch Walter Shandy impart his absurd pseudo-scientific philosophies to his bewildered brother, Toby Shandy, and to the ridiculous Dr. Slop, who is as good a doctor as his name suggests.
A second story thread is that of Toby, who with the help of his manservant Trim (both are war veterans) is caught up in reconstructing and replaying his own wartime ordeals. The comedy highlight of the play is the romance that builds between the ever-eager Widow Wadman and the innocent but self-absorbed Toby, whose warped understanding of the female sex and lovemaking is conceived through his knowledge of military fortifications.
The delight of this production is in the staging. A fast-paced frolic that both interrupts and accompanies Tristram’s narration, and one that makes best use of the set, a domestic interior – presumably Walter’s study. There are five doors that repeatedly fly open and close shut with admirable precision, and out of which bursts any of the 12 characters who work with wild excitement to portray Tristram’s wit and observations.
You know a cast is right for a comedy when the mere sight of them makes you laugh and I felt this way about nearly of the characters in their gaudy Georgian costumes and clever mannerisms. They were all tremendous and thoroughly convincing in delivering such elevated and wordy speeches. The overt displays of masculinity, and the constant embarrassments it presents, is a central theme of the play. And it is nicely balanced by the use of the two female actors throughout, as they alternate between their roles as women of high-society and lowly servants. I particularly enjoyed seeing death appears onstage, as a black-hooded bird-like creature, aimlessly skulking around every now and then, as madcap as the men he observes.
The ending did leave me a little puzzled. Tristram fails in his struggle to strive beyond his poor health. Death has set his sights on him, and the actors surround his deceased body and continue to tell his story for him, speaking in their own voices. I failed to see what this was getting at (particularly as he doesn’t die in the novel). Probably because the action has suddenly slowed for a solemn moment whilst my brain was still punch drunk for the next frenzied and ridiculous scene. Overall, I left feeling very satisfied that the remarkable sensibility and style of Tristram Shandy has most definitely been offered up. Go see it if you can, and let me know what you think of the ending!
Original Author: Laurence Sterne
Adapted by: Callum Hale
Producer: Micawber Theatre
Booking Until: 1st March 2014
Box Office: 020 8995 6035
Booking Link: http://www.tabardweb.co.uk/tristram.html