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Northanger Abbey at Orange Tree Theatre | Review

I liken this adaptation of Northanger Abbey to the play Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), in that it is very hammy, and very entertaining, and at the same time, it seems to assume some knowledge of the Jane Austen novel in order to understand some of in-jokes. That said, it is quite possible to follow what’s going on without having read the book – always a good thing – so I don’t think anybody was completely lost by the curtain call, especially when so much of what goes on is described to the audience.

AK Golding (Iz), Rebecca Banatvala (Cath), Sam Newton (Hen) - credit Pamela Raith.
AK Golding (Iz), Rebecca Banatvala (Cath), Sam Newton (Hen) – credit Pamela Raith.

Thus it is that a Jane Austen novel is adapted and condensed into a two-and-a-half hour show (Austen, as you will be aware, was known for her precision in her writing, but does not exactly lend itself to brevity). Zoe Cooper’s script even makes light of how many acts there are in the show – Act Four begins with Cath (Rebecca Banatvala) telling the audience: “And so. Act Three.” The actual Act Three is a precursor, as are Acts One and Two, such that despite the title, only one-quarter of the evening is spent in the abbey itself.

Fans of Austen will almost undoubtedly be able to pick out the various differences in the narrative as it is presented in this adaptation. The set is about as pink as the Barbie movie, and there’s a fair amount of pushing and pulling of tables, old-style suitcases, and other relevant items – it’s not minimalist, but it is economical, especially as there are only three actors. Iz (AK Golding) has a close friendship with Cath that develops into something more than that, though for narrative reasons (and that it’s a story from the early nineteenth century) it doesn’t blossom in the way it would these days.

Completing the trio is Hen (Sam Newton) – short for Henry, a member of the rich Tilney clan that lives in the abbey. All three actors play multiple roles, occasionally within the same scene, making full use of Austen’s literary technique of ‘free indirect speech’, that is, where the character speaks as the story’s narrator. Here, as there are multiple characters, there are multiple narrators. The effect, alas, is as much a help as it is a hindrance – there were times when I wondered if I was watching a group presentation rather than a play.

It is, at least, faithful to Austen’s commitment to attention to detail, and this was a relatively rare occasion when I came away from a show without any questions at all. The show’s hamminess seemed to work agreeably with much of the audience, perhaps because it was knowingly ostentatious. There were some good punchlines (which would, alas, be giving too much away if repeated here), and the production strikes a good balance as it tells a story from a previous generation to a contemporary audience without glossing over the various issues Cath and Iz find themselves dealing with.

A relatively brisk pace in the first half couldn’t quite be sustained to the end, and in the last half hour or so, it started to drag a little. Still, a talented and hardworking cast bring a complex story to life in this engaging and imaginative production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaeng

Catherine Morland (Rebecca Banatvala) knows little of the world, but who needs real-life experience when you have novels to guide you? Catherine seizes her chance to escape her claustrophobic family and join the smart set in Bath. Between balls and parties spent with the aloof Henry Tilney (Sam Newton), she meets sophisticated, intoxicating Isabella Thorpe – Iz (AK Golding), to her friends – and so Cath’s secret adventure begins.

by ZOE COOPER inspired by the novel by JANE AUSTEN directed by TESSA WALKER
A co-production with Octagon Theatre Bolton, the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough and Theatre by the Lake

January 20th to February 24th 2024

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