Northanger Abbey

Zoe Cooper, from the novel by Jane Austen
Orange Tree Theatre and Octagon Theatre Bolton, Stephen Joseph Theatre and Theatre by the Lake
Orange Tree Theatre

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Rebecca Banatvala as Cath and Sam Newton as Hen Credit: Pamela Raith
A K Golding as Iz Credit: Pamela Raith
A K Golding as Iz, Rebecca Banatvala as Cath and Sam Newton as Hen Credit: Pamela Raith
Rebecca Banatvala as Cath Credit: Pamela Raith
Sam Newton as Hen, Rebecca Banatvala as Cath and A K Golding as Iz Credit: Pamela Raith
Rebecca Banatvala as Cath and A K Golding as Iz Credit: Pamela Raith

This dramatisation of Jane Austen’s first novel, written in 1803 though not published until 1818 after her death, is playfully Pink. Dramatist Zoe Cooper has viewed it through a Queer lens as the colour of the floor on which it is played and the all pink surroundings hint at.

Just three actors play the principal characters who tell their own story. Rebecca Banatvla, A K Golding and Sam Newton as Catherine Moreland, Isabella Thorpe and Henry Tilney (though they shorten their names to Cath, Iz and Hen) narrate, enact and even discuss playing themselves and all the other characters. Austen’s satire on the mores and manners of her society remains intact along with her send-up of fashionable Gothic romances with a more Sapphic emphasis on the affection between Cath and Iz who, though looking to make a “good” marriage, doesn’t just want a man with money and social position but one whose life will involve her as little as possible and leave her free to conduct her own affairs.

Director Tessa Walker picks up on the fondness of the Austen circle and of her characters for matters theatrical and, when they switch (often mid-sentence) from telling to flashback, she encourages a kind of what you might call coarse acting if it weren’t so stylish, especially when playing other characters.

Sam Newton makes a sensitive Hen, but also a contrastingly unpleasant John Thorpe, and sets the tone near the start when he dons a skirt to become Cath’s mother and gives birth to her—and they get away with making birth funny without being offensive.

A K Golding, though wearing Iz’s yellow dress, picks up a tobacco pipe to become Cath’s father and plays a number of other male cameos as well as delivering an Iz who knows herself, an Iz who seems nicer than Austen’s original.

There is a definite frisson between Iz and Rebecca Banatvala’s Cath, who is full of teenage enthusiasm, especially for turreted castles, preferably spooked ones, but whose vivid imagination can’t imagine what is going to happen between them.

Snatches of music and lighting changes underline shifts of scene or from telling to enacting. Stacked luggage makes a coach, a table is spun around as things unravel and under glittering chandeliers the interrupted intimacies of ballroom partnering delightfully exploited. That last is beginning to seem overdone when it pitches up to another level.

Though one or two episodes seem a little long, things move at a fast pace, helped by the easy rapport this cast establish with their audience from their first wave to those upstairs. It is a play that sustains its playfulness almost to the end, when its protagonists turn romance topsy turvy.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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