Review – Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austin adapted by Tim Luscombe – New Wolsey Theatre till Saturday then touring

Classic novels – especially Jane Austin – are hard to successfully adapt for the stage. There is inevitably a surfeit of characters, nothing much happens in terms of major events, and they cover a wide landscape.

However Tim Luscombe is a past master, having adapted not one but three Austin novels – so should know what he’s doing by now. The secret to my mind is not to try and perform with too small a cast and to go with the characters as Jane Austin wrote them rather than try to bring them up to date to make them accessible for a modern audience. And this is just what the writer, and director Karen Simpson, have done.

Initially the set seemed a little sparse – but good use is made of some very adaptable seating which is turned into carriages, garden seats and beds amongst other things – the eight strong cast moving them when needed – often continuing the theme with a choreographed little dance.

Northanger Abbey is in part Austin’s send up of the penchant for the gothic horror novels of her day, set in creepy ruined castles with fainting heroines. Mrs Radcliff wrote a huge number of these which were very popular. This novel’s heroine, Catherine Morland, bonds with her friend Isabelle over their mutual love of these pot boilers. In fact Catherine longs to be the heroine of such a story in real life – but in a wholly innocent and unaffected way.

Eva Feiler has just the right balance for Catherine – a young, country girl wide eyed to be spending her first season in fashionable Bath, ready to make new friends and (hopefully) fall in love. Annabelle Terry is suitably coquettish as her friend and initial lover of her older brother James ( Joseph Tweedale). Emma Ballantine makes a delicate contrast with her fragile portrayal of Eleanor Tilney – the sister of Clergyman Henry with whom Catherine soon falls hopelessly in love.

Anti hero John – always ready to put the boot in –  is played with a nice turn in dastardliness by Joe Parker, and Jonathon Hansler makes the most of growling, irascible General Tilney.

The story weaves between the characters in the novel Catherine is reading and the action of her life as she is first accompanied to Bath by her good friend Mrs Allen (Hilary Tones) and then invited to Northanger Abbey with the Tilneys and the fulfilment of her romantic fantasies – which reality soon turns into something more unwelcome. There are also discussions on the education of women and their place in society that is an important reminder of how far we have come.

There is plenty of humour in this production – and although running at two and a half hours it did not feel long. The cast play a number of parts – but never to the point of confusion – and the elegance of the language is matched by the elegance of manners as they play out the story of lovers crossed, promises broken and hearts and hopes restored again.

This is a lovely, well directed and well dressed performance that never felt rushed – but always hit the right theatrical and historical notes.

A must for literary lovers – but even if Jane Austin is not your thing I think you would find this production thoroughly entertaining – and maybe a good introduction to one of our most talented novelists.

Suzanne Hawkes


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