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Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen, adapted by Tim Luscombe
Theatre Royal, York
(2004)

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Northanger Abbey was the first of Jane Austen's novels to be accepted for publication (in 1803) but for some mysterious reason it did not appear until 1818, one year after the author's death. Although the novel anticipates the themes of Austen's mature works, it also hearkens back to the hilarious burlesques she wrote as a teenager, and critics have found fault with the book's episodic construction. But as adaptor/director Tim Luscombe rightly points out, "It's probably the most theatrical of Austen's novels the most stageworthy of all her works."

Northanger Abbey tells the story of seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, a wildly imaginative devotee of Gothic novels whose aunt and uncle take her for a six-week stay in sophisticated Bath. Luscombe ingeniously resolves the supposed mismatch between social comedy and literary parody by bringing Catherine's favourite novel, Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, into the heart of the action. At strategic moments the cast take on the identities of Radcliffe's tormented heroines and dastardly aristocrats; Henry Tilney's tongue-in-cheek description of his ancestral home becomes an actual guided tour, complete with a suitably Gothic thunderstorm; and Catherine's increasingly bizarre theories (she is convinced that the Abbey's owner murdered his late wife) are delivered as asides to the audience

This deft adaptation preserves all the wit and charm of the original. Austen's sparkling dialogue transfers perfectly from page to stage, and the excellent ensemble cast bring the familiar characters vividly to life. Jenni Maitland is a most endearing Catherine, fairly bursting with enthusiasm for the exciting new opportunities that lie before her after a lifetime spent in a quiet country village; we see her grow from a naïve girl into a capable young woman, and the scene in which she is obliged to abandon her outrageous fantasies is genuinely touching. Olivia Darnley sparkles as the captivating but shallow Isabella Thorpe, Susan Bovell delivers a richly comic performance as Catherine's fashion-mad aunt Mrs Allen, Freddie Stevenson is an appealing Henry Tilney (a character who comes across as slightly patronizing in the novel but leaves us in no doubt that he deserves Catherine's love), and Mark Payton makes the most of his comparatively brief role as the irascible paterfamilias General Tilney.

Although Mark Bailey's set (beautifully lit by Richard G Jones) is largely confined to two interiors - a Georgian room in shades of grey for the Bath scenes and Gothic windows for Northanger - this is a handsome production. The women look lovely in the simple fashions of the day, although Aunt Allen's concoctions are far more flamboyant and must have taken a heavy toll on the ostrich population. All credit too to composer/choreographer Matthew Bugg and the eight dancers/extras who help to give the impression that the cast is much larger than it really is!

In short, this is a hugely enjoyable show and should delight Austen fans and general playgoers alike.

"Northanger Abbey" runs until 12th June

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson