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Review: Northanger Abbey

Alicia Rees, Comment Editor, reviews 'Northanger Abbey' at Exeter's Northcott Theatre.

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The curtain, well it never rose on Northanger Abbey. The stage was already visible as you sat down, beautifully set with bluey-lilac screens and ornate chandeliers, it was a quintessentially Austen drawing room.

As for the play itself, adapted by Tim Luscombe and directed by Karen Simpson, all the usual features of a Jane Austen novel were present; unrequited love, an unworthy suitor, a scandal and, of course, a marriage. The entire plot centred around the pursuit of a husband and Catherine, the lead character, became fixated on the task. There were jokes made at the expense of Mrs Allen, the motherly figure. The helpless girls spent their time looking at hats and hoping a man would approach them. Now, this is all to be expected, after all it was written in the nineteenth century.

However, I must admit, it was difficult to watch at times. Once it had been accepted that this play was set in a completely different society with somewhat different expectations of women, it was bearable. I can appreciate that the brains behind this adaptation would have wanted to align themselves with the original novel as much as possible, but it did raise questions. Is authenticity sometimes more harmful? Should writers rework texts so that they’re more relatable to a twenty-first century audience?

all the usual features of a Jane Austen novel were present; unrequited love, an unworthy suitor, a scandal and, of course, a marriage

The cast was kept small, eight actors equally split male and female, which brought with it some almost comical multiroling with the help of a few fake moustaches. Eva Feiler did indeed capture the slightly bumbling and fanciful spirit of Catherine Morland but on the whole, the characters were so exuberant they were nearly parodies of themselves. Maybe this was partly due to the forced ‘RP’ accents or phrases such as “let us take a turn about the room” which must be an essential line in any Austen adaptation (Pride and Prejudice, I’m looking at you). Continuing with the theme of comparison between Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Allen could only be described as Brenda Blethyn’s Mrs Bennet on steroids. Muslin obsessed and utterly self-indulgent, she did provide the limited comedy in the production.

The inception element of the play, the story within the story, was very cleverly used. The book which Catherine is currently fawning over has clear parallels with the happenings in her life and, to be frank, there were times where it was a slightly more intriguing plot line. In general, Northanger Abbey was a well-made production with a beautiful set design but only became enjoyable after the bitter pill of misogyny had been well and truly swallowed. Catherine got her man though, so I guess it doesn’t really matter.

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