Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ was her first novel, though not the first to be published. While revised later, it lacks the peerless, smooth finish and control of tone and character evolution that are associated with her mature style. Zoe Cooper has perceived that there are rough and blurred edges and extremes of tone and incident that lend themselves to opening out in theatre presentation. The result moves a long way from Austen, and perhaps owes rather more to Bridgerton. But on its own terms this is a consistently entertaining, intelligent and thoughtful work, which is played with brio, invention, and panache by the trio of actors.
The original plot focuses on Catherine Morland, bored and frustrated only daughter in a large, financially strapped, Northern clergy family. She escapes into romantic novels, and then, with more affluent relatives, to Bath, where her romantic delusions involve her in a series of errors of judgment. She falls for meretricious charm, rather than grounded common sense, before a final reckoning at Northanger Abbey which she has convinced herself is the centre of scandal and concealment.
While most of the elements of this plot remain, Cooper disrupts things mightily by adding a lesbian relationship which both plot and convention then seek to smother. A very postmodern tussle emerges as different possible outcomes are spun out simultaneously, all of which gives the actors a lot to do and imply, a task that they and director Tessa Walker attack with relish, depicting a gallery of characters along the way. The style of acting is full-on, physical and archly exaggerated, with little subtlety. But it is undeniably effective and engaging.
By the usual measures at the Orange Tree Theatre this is a simple set, with balcony and flooring painted fuchsia and a selection of chandeliers rising and falling to suggest the Assembly Rooms in Bath. Furniture, packing cases, and costume pieces move on and off with rapidity to suggest scene and role changes with great economy. Highlights include the disastrous horse ride and the various Gothic spookeries generated when we finally reach Northanger Abbey itself.
With so many roles played by only three actors the cast have a huge amount to do; and they enter into these challenges with exceptional commitment and a variety of guises. In the lead role Rebecca Banatvala has great fun with the heroine’s pretensions, but also traces the line of her emerging maturity with rare skill. Sam Newton and AK Golding take on many roles across gender lines with great comic effect: for example, Newton as Catherine’s ever-pregnant mother and Golding as a series of swaggering soldiers. They also manage to invest their core roles of Henry Tilney and Isabella Thorpe with appropriate Austenian attributes – quiet, unshowy gravity in the case of the former and slippery, rebellious, wilful charm in the case of the latter.
My main criticism is that sometimes there is too much virtuosity for its own sake as actors swap roles and voices within the same speech, falling over themselves to be unreliable narrators. The energy is hugely impressive; but at 2 hrs 30 (with interval), despite the frenetic action and deft word-spinning, this is a long show with some slow patches that would benefit from pruning.
Overall though, this is a very rewarding show, and was much enjoyed on press night by a somewhat raucous audience clearly eager for this sort of knowing escapism.