Tristram Shandy: Conception, Cock & Bull – theatre review

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Stephen Oxley has adapted Laurence Sterne’s humourous novel for the one-man show Tristram Shandy: Conception, Cock & Bull, which is running at St James Studio, Victoria in London this week. Review by Anne Cox

tristram shandy

Long before there were monologues and stand-up there was Tristram Shandy – the bawdy raconteur who entertained the Georgians through the diaries written by clergyman and satirist Laurence Sterne. Translating his work for the stage and screen has always deemed impossible until Steve Coogan came up with the film Cock & Bull Story in 2005.

Now writer and actor Stephen Oxley has also chipped away at the work in an adaptation for a one man show which is playing at St James Studio, Victoria, this week. The performance is a little like watching Ronnie Corbett or Billy Connolly in period costume. Shandy is incapable of sticking to the point and instead digresses with a series of “observations” – one even on the subject of digressions.

The exact title of the show is Tristram Shandy: Conception, Cock & Bull – which come from Sterne’s The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen. The writer was feted by society and befriended by David Garrick in much the same way as his nemesis Tristram Shandy.

Picture the scene as Oxley, dressed in powdered wig and frock coat plays his mother and father, bent over a wooden chest, copulating. He regales us with the moment of his conception, which was squeezed in by his father during a moment of rest amid his monthly clock-winding ritual.

Nine months later the men – Mr Shandy snr and his brother Toby, plus various servants – gather to await the birth – only to hear that the male midwife, a certain Dr Slop, had crushed the babe’s nose with his forceps.

The first act gives us Shandy’s opinions on his family including how he came by his unusual name. There is a diatribe on his eccentric uncle who received a life-changing blow to his nether regions during service for his country. Mad Uncle Toby later converts a bowling green into a makeshift battlefield where he relives famous skirmishes with an equally batty servant.

The second act – the Cock & Bull – refers to Toby’s attempts to woo a widow lady. The latter part of the title dismissed almost as an afterthought in the last moments of the comedy.

The humour is a little hit and miss but enthusiastically imparted by Oxley who gives us 90 minutes of ribald, earthy observances delivered as only a gentleman can. Oxley performs all parts and it is an engaging performance.

Running until Saturday (14 Jun); more info

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Anne is a freelance regional theatre critic with a 'patch' stretching from the RSC in Stratford, through the Home Counties and London to Chichester

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