Writer: Jane Austen
Adaptor: Toby Hulse
A craze has appeared in which Classic Regency romances and ultra-violent zombie mayhem combine to create a new genre of literature that became a New York Times bestseller and created at least one mainstream (if not very good) movie in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In Northanger Abbey adaptor Toby Hulse and director Nik Partridge have incorporated a dash of this in a clever deconstruction of Jane Austen’s first novel, published posthumously, that not only allows for a madcap second act dual between its heroine and zombie-lite creatures but also for Jane Austen and two of her fellow writers, Fanny Burney and Ann Radcliffe, to act as companions and omnipotent narrators to the action.
Austen’s novel is a parody of both Bath-set romances (Burney) and gothic imaginings (Radcliffe). Splicing the two together, mixing it with her own sharp social humour- it is by far her funniest book – she then proceeds to break the rules of the literature of her day and turns out a novel that feels to this day very modern. So as Catherine Morland, played with charm and eager eyes adventurousness by Charlotte Kinder, embarks on a journey to Bath, she breaks the rules of the game, falling in love with the dashing Henry Tilner (Tom Cortese) before he has declared his own feelings for her. Later as she is invited to be a guest of the Tilneys in their familial home, she concocts a tale of murder and secrets involving the patriarch General Tilney and his dead wife. Her journey down dark corridors and breaking open of locked cases may not lead to the answers she expects, though.
The rule breaking in the novel, with the mixture of genres and the author coming out of the tale to directly address the audience is replicated in this stage adaptation by the ever resourceful Hulse with the three novelists being constant presences to advise and guide the heroine, just like the literature she reads does in the original. The second half dual, which should by all accounts be ridiculous, makes sense when you consider it comes from an imagination of a girl who loves her adventure story.
Partridge’s smart production ensures a constant stream of action as scenes roll one into another on Ti Green’s book heaving set. Although there should definitely be a law forbidding actors from playing horses and any other animals on the Bristol theatre scene, the International MA students of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School acquit themselves well, although the language of Austen and her contemporaries has a tendency to flatten in the mostly North American accents. There are stand out performances from Anna Kurtz, Kylie Holloway and Mary Beth Schroeder as the three female authors, Ella Imms as the flirtatious best friend, Adi Chugh as a spurned suitor, and Emily Ferrier who lends a ghostly presence and haunting voice to the ghostly spectre at the abbey.
Runs until 28 June 2016 | Image: Contributed