Tristram Shandy | The British Library, London

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The Independent Culture

While TV networks like to spend millions on glossy adaptations of classic novels, the theatre, it seems, often prefers to travel in the opposite direction, spinning drama from great literature using the slenderest of means. The day is probably not far off when every book in the canon will have been turned into a one-person show. A grim prospect, you might think, but if they were all as good as Stephen Oxley's sprightly account of Laurence Sterne's enduring exercise in meandering eccentricity, one could imagine TV commissioners falling over themselves to shove monologues into primetime slots.

While TV networks like to spend millions on glossy adaptations of classic novels, the theatre, it seems, often prefers to travel in the opposite direction, spinning drama from great literature using the slenderest of means. The day is probably not far off when every book in the canon will have been turned into a one-person show. A grim prospect, you might think, but if they were all as good as Stephen Oxley's sprightly account of Laurence Sterne's enduring exercise in meandering eccentricity, one could imagine TV commissioners falling over themselves to shove monologues into primetime slots.

Published between 1760 and 1767, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy opened the world's eyes to what a novel might do at the same time as sending up the new genre's conventions and pretensions with its irreverent approach to style and typography and its taste for labyrinthine digressions, pushing the "point" of the story ever to one side.

Oxley - who brought his version to the British Library on Tuesday night as part of "Chapter and Verse", a season dedicated to staging assorted poetry and prose from the past 1000 years - is not nearly so radical as Sterne. He doesn't test the limits of his craft, or spring innovations upon us, but succeeds, nevertheless, in conveying wonderfully the teasing, conversational quality of the writing and its recurrent mock-pretensions to high drama.

Got up in a turquoise waistcoat, grey breeches and wig, and with only a trunk and two chairs for props, Oxley's camply genial manner and imperious aspect suggests an anti-establishment lecturer who has no intention of sticking to his proposed subject. Bullying us with Latin quotations and pedantic questions, mischievously whispering saucy confidences into the ears of those in the front row, Oxley charms his audience into a state of trust even as he leads them hither and thither through the dense undergrowth of the novelist's imagination with aside after aside.

As a distillation of the text, the version is astute - the major blights that befall Tristram are documented in a hilariously drawn out manner, from his troublesome birth to unfortunate encounter at the age of five with a falling sash window, as are the foibles and bodily anomalies of the Shandy household. With a ludicrous insistence on detail, the actor even recreates the exact same squiggly path that Corporal Trim's staff makes through the air as he expounds on marriage.

Musing on the nature of sperm, the effect of weather on character, and the cause of nasal deformation, our 18th-century motormouth hero often resembles a stand-up comedian avant la lettre. Catch him when he next resurfaces. In the meantime, savour the Sternian eclecticism of a programme that includes a two-man show anthologising war literature and popster Jah Wobble's response to William Blake.

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