Venue: York Theatre Royal, April 23
To call the latest York Theatre Royal production an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman would be appropriately both true and not true at all.
Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy’s first volume in 1760, and it has been attempted many times, most notably by Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom in their film A Cock And Bull Story. As Director Damian Cruden himself says in his programme notes, “our production of iShandy makes no sense whatsoever,” and who can argue with that?
The novel, ostensibly the life story of Yorkshire gentleman Tristram Shandy, has a non linear structure complete with blank pages and the lead character not even born until Chapter Three. Shandy is famous for being “unfilmable” and challenging to read, but also for being incredibly prescient and bawdy. If Sterne didn’t invent the concept of meta-fiction, then I don’t know who did!
iShandy cleverly places the action in the living room of Susan, a teacher, and host of a book club. The club are meeting to discuss Tristram Shandy wearing period costume and with appropriate snacks. To tell you too much more would really spoil the show. Needless to say, it follows the Sterne model, dipping in and out of the story at will, randomly commenting on the action, sometimes being a straight translation, at others bearing no relation to the text.
It pleases me to see writer Richard Hurford say of the show “iShandy is not an adaptation and we never intended it to be” – because as a straight-up page-to-stage version it fails miserably. But that is the whole point; iShandy takes the idea of Sterne’s novel, and runs with it, creating a whole new animal, a hybrid stage full of insanity. My wife and I enjoyed it greatly.
The strong ensemble cast was anchored by Elizabeth Bower as Susan/Susannah. Others may have got better lines or bigger laughs, Bower was the standout. One or two of the actors could have taken a lesson from her in waiting for a laugh; I missed a few lines because the laughter overpowered them.
The set design and lighting were simple and effective, although a search for Tristram himself took it to all kinds of unusual places…
I was at various points, charmed, confused and highly amused! We especially liked the footnotes conceit, a brave choice for writer/director and cast, which provided some great giggles.
iShandy proves that you can make an adaptation of an unadaptable work – if you don’t adapt it at all, yet somehow make a hilariously fun show both for those who know Tristram Shandy and for those who don’t.
After all, has anyone ever read it properly?
- iShandy is at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, May 11
- For more details and tickets visit the Theatre Royal website