DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Northanger Abbey – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Reviewer: Ray Taylor

Writer: Jane Austen

Adaptor: Zoe Cooper

Director: Tessa Walker

Northanger Abbeyis the brainchild of playwright Zoe Cooper and is a breathless romp through the original novel delivered by three amazing actors who each play multiple parts. But anyone who is familiar with the original source material should not expect a faithful rendition of the plot and relationships between the various characters. Rather, this is Cooper’s own unique interpretation of the work that has haunted her since the age of nineteen when she first read it.

At the heart of the play is the relationship between the heroine, the young naive Catherine Morland and the flirtatious Isabella Thorpe. Cooper turns this into a lesbian relationship because she can see something in Austen’s writing and depiction of these two characters that lends itself to that. She is, of course, at liberty to interpret how ever she sees fit but this will not be to everyone’s taste. Indeed, some members of the audience did not return for the second half (the first half had ended with the two women enjoying a brief kiss).

Rebecca Banatvala is Catherine (Cath) and Ak Golding is Isabella (Iz). Both were brilliant in not only portraying these two personas but also multiple other characters, many of them male. This was often achieved by the minimum of stage props and the adoption of a deeper voice. The third actor was Sam Newton who mainly played Henry Tilney (Hen) but also many other characters as well, a lot of them female. His very notable first appearance was right at the beginning of the story when Catherine was born and Newton was his pregnant mother giving birth to her – yes, it’s that sort of play. There is a lot of humour, with the cast even talking directly to individual members of the audience at the beginning. Stage scenery consisted of a table and chairs, a chaise longue, trunks of differing sizes to denote a carriage, and a chest with various changes of jackets and a few props. All these were effectively used and brought to life by the skill of the actors and the fairly constant movement and interactions between them.

You know in any Austen novel that you’re always going to get a ballroom scene and this one was very effectively done in conveying the sense of movement and excitement you get with a lot of bodies all moving around a confined space. I would imagine it took quite some rehearsing to enable the actors to not only learn all the movements but to speak dialogue at the same time. It’s a bit like that party trick when you have to pat your head with one hand whilst simultaneously rubbing your tummy with the other.

The nature of theatre in the round is that there are necessarily times when the actor has his or her back to you and there is a danger that some of the dialogue can get a bit lost. This is particularly the case when the plot demands a great deal of information having to be got across to the audience so that the play is essentially very “wordy.” This does not detract too much from the overall performance although it would have been good to hear allthe dialogue.

This is a bold, very creative and imaginative, and individual treatment of one of the works of one of the most iconic figures in English literature. Catherine Morland, a young innocent in the world who devours the gothic romances and thrillers of the time and whose novel reading informs her whole life. She first is let loose in society in Bath and when the opportunity arises to stay in a real castle-like abode such as Northanger Abbey her imagination knows no bounds. All her subsequent relationships inform her development although Cooper’s denouement isn’t necessarily the same as in the original novel. Ultimately this doesn’t really matter (although traditional “Janeites” might disagree) because we are witnessing how one playwright sees the novel and her viewpoint is just as valid as the next person’s. The whole cast bring her vision excitingly and cleverly to life and should be applauded for that, and if the play does nothing else but encourage people to return to the original novel then it will have achieved much.

Runs until Saturday 13 April 2024

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Interesting and Individual

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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