Theatrical fireworks

Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen , New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until Saturday November 3The love affair the cinema and television has with Jane Austen, who only wrote six novels is remarkable and ongoing.

Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen , New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until Saturday November 3

The love affair the cinema and television has with Jane Austen, who only wrote six novels is remarkable and ongoing. I know of two dozen adaptations with stars from Greer Garson to Billie Piper, and that's not counting Bollywood versions. Stage dramatisations, too, abound. This latest, by Tim Luscombe, is a sparkler.

The young heroine of Northanger Abbey has many of the problems facing middle class country girls made familiar by Jane Austen. How to get on in the world, how to negotiate the treacherous social whirl at Bath, how to learn the tricks of a world in which men treat women as a lesser species while families immerse themselves in how great a fortune might arrive from a good marriage. Cynics might say little has changed except that Bath has been replaced by celebrity magazines.

Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey has an extra problem, cleverly worked into this stylish touring stage production from the Salisbury Playhouse. She's got her head so full of Gothic fiction nonsense that it completely warps her judgment. She's wrapped up in a fantasy world of old abbeys, secret passages, walled up nuns and ghostly happenings, and of barons with murky pasts. So much so she begins to see everyone around her in those terms.


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Tim Luscombe, both adapter and director here, cleverly interpolates passages from Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, the contemporary Gothic novel Jane Austen lampooned in Northanger Abbey. That's great fun and just adds to the mixture of innocence and deceit, honesty and lies, philosophical concern with life's imponderables and bored indulgence in frippery you expect in Jane Austen.

This is a lively, innovative production, entirely engrossing, constantly on the move, played by a cast of eight without a weak link. The actors emerge onto an open thrust stage from designer Colin Falconer's striking eight-door backdrop with Gothic arches above. Matthew Bugg's choreography uses stylised dance, the social solvent in that society, as an ever-present theme.

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Jenni Maitland's Catherine is as wide-eyed and credulous as you could want, Emma Hamilton's Isabella as scheming a young lady as you'd not want to fall for,

Terry Taplin's General a torrid old grump; and Gregory Finnegan makes an impressive and interesting good guy, which is not always easy.

The best onstage Jane Austen seen for some time.

Ivan Howlett

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