fri 19/04/2024

Northanger Abbey, Orange Tree Theatre review - larky retelling of Austen’s satire with a poignant core | reviews, news & interviews

Northanger Abbey, Orange Tree Theatre review - larky retelling of Austen’s satire with a poignant core

Northanger Abbey, Orange Tree Theatre review - larky retelling of Austen’s satire with a poignant core

Zoe Cooper's queer reading is a tonic: clever, funny and seriously silly

Bosom buddies: A K Golding and Rebecca BanatvalaPamela Raith Photography

What Zoe Cooper has concocted in her loving rewiring of Jane Austen’s first completed novel looks at first sight like a knockabout satire of a satire. But her aim is more sober than that: a queer rereading of this text as she first experienced it as a student.

The Orange Tree’s in-the-round space is ideal for what Cooper does here. The venue has no “fourth wall” to break, more like a fifth wall, an invisible membrane separating stage area from seats. This Cooper cheerfully breaks too, from the outset. The three period-costumed cast members arrive, survey the audience and wave, preparing us for a re-enactment of the text that, we come to realise, Catherine Morland (Rebecca Banatvala), our young heroine, is writing. The laughs start here, and don’t stop.

A K Golding in Northanger AbbeyWhat we see is simultaneously two plays in one: the main action of Catherine’s progress towards a happy ending, via the social scene in Bath and the Tilney family’s stately pile, Northanger Abbey, which is enacted by the three lead characters; but also an “offstage” commentary shaping her account by these same friends and relatives. Chief among these is Iz, Isabella Thorpe (A K Golding, pictured left), the bosom buddy Catherine makes when she arrives in Bath for the season with rich family friends. “Offstage” Iz is an amalgam of stage manager, script editor and actor of multiple parts, as well as a prod for Cath’s memory and general muse. “Onstage”, in Cath’s account, she is a sparky, independent woman who makes it clear she is not interested in conventional romance and will marry for money if she has to.

Also on hand is “Hen” (Sam Newton), hardly recognisable as Austen’s leading man, Henry Tilney, except for his odd conversancy with grades of muslin, the stuff of ladies’ fashion, as in the novel. Hen, too, volunteers himself to play a range of roles, many of them women, whereas Iz often appears as a male character. Described as a “moping” mummy’s boy and “limp-wristed”, there is no doubt what Cooper is suggesting about Hen’s sexuality, without making him remotely camp.

This dual focus is a clever way for Cooper to interject her "offstage" version of the true friendship between Cath and Iz, which involves more bosom than Austen described. The gist of the novel is still there – Catherine’s insatiable love of gothic romances, her passion for adventures, her heated imagination, which leads her to mistake the Tilney home for a place of evil deeds involving Henry’s mysteriously absent mother – but this strand is played as hilarious melodrama, where people strike ludicrous poses in silly voices. 

Sam Newton as Hen/John in Northanger AbbeyCath in this mode becomes “an heroine”, hand on pseudo-tragic forehead, renaming herself Katerina de Morland despite her broad northern accent; Iz’s General Tilney, father of Henry, becomes a dastardly growly villain; and Hen appears as Iz’s boorish brother John (pictured right), distinguishable by his mangled posh accent and scarlet neckwear. But he also throws himself into playing Cath’s pregnant mother giving birth, and later Hen’s daft sister Ellie, who walks around Northanger Abbey with a bucket, here pronounced “baacket” for no obvious reason than to add another comic touch.

The excellent cast seize on Cooper’s comedy, weighting key phrases with relish. Cath being a girl from “a northern county in this country” becomes a repeated cue for a laugh, as do the deliberately broad lines in the “onstage” action, where Cath’s brother Nigel wins prizes at an agricultural show for his cock, and people do country dancing, with the emphasis firmly on country’s first syllable. In a key laugh-line, Cath says to Iz, “How queer you are!” “Yes. I am. Very,” Iz tells us she replied. 

Cooper has fun herself reducing the situation of women in late 18th century England to its absurd basics. As Cath’s mother goes into labour, she recites the list of chores she intends to complete before the baby arrives, from picking cherries and making jam to coppicing the trees with a saw. And when Cath’s first period starts, her brother Nigel delights in pointing out all the domestic duties she will have to perform, now she has reached adult womanhood and is to be “subservient”. It’s a far cry from Austen’s more genteel fictional vision. 

Director Tessa Walker is adept at keeping the piece bouncing along, sometimes literally, when the three actors simulate riding on bumpy ground in a carriage. This is brilliant small-scale theatre, with minimal scenery and props: crystal chandeliers overhead that rise and lower as required; a wheeled-on chaise longue, table and trunk; a Barbie-pink floor. The pace is unstoppable, the tone expertly controlled between boisterous farce at one extreme and sincere confessional at the other. It’s a type of theatre that pleases immensely in its economical use of its means, but which also allows a kind of focus that proscenium arch productions have to work harder to achieve (and sometimes don’t). 

The ending is calm and contemplative, questioning the means that turn private emotions into words on a page. In it there is a reprise of an image from earlier in the piece, of the back of the head of a woman in a bookshop who is looking at Cath’s finished novel. Now it comes with a touching coda that seems to speak of Cooper’s own experience – “and there she found herself at last, pressed between the pages of a book, just as she had always hoped”.

'Limp-wristed' Hen has an odd conversancy with grades of muslin, as in the novel


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters