I have rarely been so much at a loss to make sense of a play and my reaction to it. For a start, in a paradox that Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, would have loved, the more the play succeeds in its intention, the more uncertain its success on stage. Richard Hurford claims in the programme that his play is part of an “ongoing conversation that Sterne began 250 years ago”. To me, it seems like a 21st century dramatic analogue to the 18th century novel.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy famously deals with the opinions of his father and the life of his Uncle Toby, Tristram himself not being born until the book is quite advanced. There is no coherent plot and half the fun comes from textual tricks. So iShandy, frequently imaginative, sporadically entertaining and always shapeless, offers a convincing modern equivalent, but the problem is that the reader of Sterne’s wilful, quirky and sometimes inspired book can stop reading, skip three pages, re-read a chapter or pause in meditation of its meaning (or lack of it). In the theatre, we sit there, taking it in the order that Hurford intends and too often thinking, “This is silly stuff.” The link with Sterne is well made, but at times the flavour is more 1960s absurdist drama, the sort of surrealism that knows it’s surrealistic. Even the apologetic tone of the increasingly frequent authorial interpolations is authentically Sterne-ian, but seems awfully close to excuse making for a shambolic piece of theatre.
Five members of a book group, all teachers, assemble in costume (indeed, in character) to discuss Tristram Shandy which, alas, none of them has read. The partner of the hostess, a caricatured PE teacher, supplies an illiterate commentary in his occasional moments on stage and the group’s newest member, who proposed the choice of book, sends cryptic messages about his non-appearance – neatly analogous to Tristram’s late arrival in his own story. After the interval, with the PE teacher transformed into a black-clad Footnote (Phil Rowson, splendidly precise physically and vocally) and the other actors hovering between playing parts in Tristram Shandy and playing the actors who are playing them, things get crazier and funnier, with a sparse audience responding with fairly enthusiastic puzzlement.
What is beyond doubt is that Damian Cruden’s direction in Jane Linz Roberts’ designs (lighting by Richard G. Jones) is imaginative, committed and often brilliant in its use of effects. I have to warm to a production which uses a range of music from Messiah to The Muppets! Andrew Dunn plays Mr. Shandy and his 21st century equivalent with orotund self-satisfaction, Elizabeth Bower finds unexpected humanity in Susan/Susannah and the remaining cast members – Iain Armstrong, Andrina Carroll and Mick Jasper – act with style, straight faces and a medley of accents.
iShandy runs at York Theatre Royal until 11 May. For further information visit www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk