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Northanger Abbey at Orange Tree Theatre review: Austen would thoroughly approve of this playful adaptation

Rebecca Banatvala (Cath), Sam Newton (Hen) (Pamela Raith)
Rebecca Banatvala (Cath), Sam Newton (Hen) (Pamela Raith)

This smartly playful adaptation of Jane Austen’s first completed novel is a purist’s nightmare, but I reckon Austen would thoroughly approve. Playwright Zoe Cooper merges the author with her heroine Catherine Morland and suggests that perhaps the book’s real romance lies between Catherine and her best friend Isabella, rather than her ostensible beau Henry, with his fastidious manners and interest in women’s fashion.

It’s performed by three wryly charming actors deftly chopping and changing roles on a hot-pink stage, with little more than trunks and chandeliers as props. Yet it asks big, clever questions about personal agency, authorship and control. The script switches between first and third person narratives and different time periods and tenses: I had to look up what turned out to be the Future Perfect.

The brio of Tessa Walker’s co-production for the Orange Tree and theatres in Bolton, Scarborough and Keswick, falters at the end when the script also loses momentum. I still loved it because, like Northanger Abbey, it’s about imagination, and testing the limits of convention.

Rebecca Banatvala (Cath), AK Golding (Iz) (Pamela Raith)
Rebecca Banatvala (Cath), AK Golding (Iz) (Pamela Raith)

Written in 1803 but posthumously published in 1818, Austen’s novel is a satire on the fashionable Gothic romances that northern vicar’s daughter Catherine avidly devours. Cooper makes clear early on that the raging imagination of her Cath (the other main character names are also shortened, to Iz and Hen) is a metaphor for hormones. “I find myself longing for balls,” Cath tells us, knowingly.

And so, she’s packed off with slightly posher relatives to dance away the season in Bath, and hopefully to snag a man in possession of a large, spooky castle. Rebecca Banatvala has a pert, expressive wilfulness as Cath, and quickly establishes a rapport with the audience. AK Golding brings a sultry swagger to Iz while Sam Newton is all misplaced goodwill as Hen. Both of them know how to sell a sight gag or double-entendre and work a crowd, too.

But amid all the meta jokiness, both theatrical and literary, this show pulses with real passions. Drunken soldiers represent a potent sexual threat in the decorous ballrooms of Bath, and there’s heat between Cath and Iz as they skulk conspiratorially down alleyways. Cath’s wish for romance and danger is also a wish to “escape the world, how it works and who we find ourselves to be in it”. Hen disgustedly describes the Morlands as “quite destitute” at one point. “No,” she ripostes. “We’re only not rich.”

The ending collapses as it’s rewritten before our eyes by Cooper, by Austen/Cath and by the other characters, also suddenly asserting their independence. The final image is not one of marital “perfect felicity”, but a sweet vision of Iz happening upon a copy of Northanger Abbey years later and finding her true self pressed between the pages.

Orange Theatre, to Feb 24; orangetreetheatre.co.uk