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Review of Northanger Abbey at The Pleasance Theatre

Cyphers Northanger Abbey Ensemble
Cyphers Northanger Abbey Ensemble

This stage adaptation of Northanger Abbey is, as one might reasonably expect, a period drama. The costumes may not have been exactly as they would have been in these relatively wealthy characters of the early nineteenth-century. Jane Austen’s writings were a generation before Charles Dickens’, and so the trend at the time was still to write about the only people who even understood the concept of having any time to do as one pleased – within reason, of course.

Austen is also renowned for taking the scenic route when embarking on a narrative journey – why use one paragraph to describe a journey by horse-and-carriage when it is possible to flesh it out by writing so much detail that the journey is almost in real time for the reader? This production, whilst retaining turns of phrase and characterisations that those who have read the novel are likely to recognise, trots along at a pace John Thorpe (Toby Vaughan) would be proud of. From the very first scene, involving some physical theatre, to its conclusion, the stagecraft and dialogue never let up, and the show ends as abruptly as it started. If I hadn’t known any better I might have thought this were a freshly written period play as opposed to an adaptation of a novel.

This is essential, by modern standards at least, a fairly superfluous tale about Catherine Morland (Abigail Morgan) who goes off to discover herself away from home, makes some new friends, realises what these new friends are really like for better or for worse, and returns home having completed a coming of age process. With the benefit of hindsight, there is some applicability in the evening’s proceedings to today’s world after all, despite the domestic servants and quaint pleasantries – for some, their first semester at university is the first time they have lived for an extended period outside the family home, for instance. And isn’t love pretty much universal?

The scene changes were simple but effective, sometimes involving merely changing the direction in which a prop is facing, giving a fair amount of the set double uses. Some set changes are remarkably inventive. The show brings out the sense of humour embodied in the original text very well, where what isn’t said speaks as much as, if not more than, what is spoken. It’s the sort of society where even a glance can be interpreted, or rather misinterpreted, and value judgements placed on characters on the flimsiest evidence.

Northanger AbbeyThe manner in which some scenes were portrayed left me drawing a comparison with the Scary Movie film series, parodying the horror genre with verve and passion. The comic effect was impressive, and a small but well-drilled cast seemed to be enjoying themselves on stage. At the performance I attended, a wardrobe malfunction provoked much laughter from both actors and audience. I mention it as it was a textbook example of how to make the best of something going wrong in live theatre, enhancing the performance quite gloriously.

A pleasant and whimsical production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Following the success of adaptations such as ʻGreat Expectationsʼ and ʻThe Three Musketeers’, Cyphers use their characteristic, accessible style of story-telling, multi-roling casts and fast-paced action to bring this Jane Austen novel to life for contemporary audiences.

A five-person ensemble dynamically brings this classic tale to the attention of our twenty-first-century imaginations. Without a single bonnet.

In the 200th anniversary of her death, you may have seen Jane Austen on your bank notes. But you havenʼt seen her like this. Cyphers are taking this bicentenary as an opportunity to remind audiences of Jane Austenʼs satiric attack, her timeless comedy and her playfulness.

The production was devised over more than 2 years, by a company originating from Jane Austenʼs home county of Hampshire. The show premiered in Winchester, the city of the authorʼs burial.

ʻNorthanger Abbeyʼ now comes to the Pleasance Theatre for two nights before touring in 2018.

A Cyphers Theatre Company Production
Pleasance Theatre, Carpenters Mews, North Rd, London, N7 9EF
28 and 29 November, 7:45pm


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