Flights of Fancy
“Isn’t life exciting. Well, maybe not for you all, who are just normal people come here to live vicariously through me. “
In January 2023 the University of Greenwich was roundly criticised for issuing a trigger warning to its students warning that Jane Austen’s satirical novel Northanger Abbey contains “sexism”, “gender stereotypes” and “toxic relationships and friendships.” Jane Austen was an early feminist drawing attention to the inequalities between men and women in Regency society and the Greenwich “academics” should have been more intelligent in their analysis and guidance.
So I come to Zoe Cooper’s theatre version of the novel which has opened at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and will also be seen in Bolton, Scarborough and Keswick. Played by just three actors, this production is a parody which takes Northanger Abbey as its starting point.
With so many changes of character, shorthand props, hats and expressions serve to convey changes of character. So the Morland male parent (AK Golding) waggles a cigar, holds a book and looks in charge. Aunt Allen (AK Golding or occasionally Rebecca Banatvala) puts on a large red hat.
Unlike Pride and Prejudice . . .sort of in 2021, Cooper keeps Austen’s core characters but makes the satire more obvious by using comedy to underline the failings of their personalities. Catherine Morland (Rebecca Banatvala) in her admired sprigged muslin with matching blue ribboned bonnet is charming and her obsession with romantic Gothic novels, storylines attached to her own rather dull life, enthralling flights of fancy. Sam Newton plays Henry Tilney, a very mild mannered man and very much in character with his additional female roles with the addition of a skirt.
Spoiler Alert: The end of Act Two before the interval sees Isabella Thorpe (AK Golding) and Catherine lock lips.
Austen’s dastardly Frederick Tilney has ended up on the cutting room floor but Catherine’s imagination will cast General Tilney as the Gothic villain and wife murderer. The final act sees Isabella’s arrogant brother John Thorpe (Sam Newton) take Catherine on a disastrous carriage drive where she is injured. We largely leave Jane Austen behind in these final acts as the playwright develops the Lesbian relationship between Cath and Issy but return to learn of Isabel and John Thorpe’s leaving Bath and friendship behind. Act III has meta theatre with Catherine addressing the audience and revealing who she really is.
The energy of all three actors is undisputed, Rebecca Banatvala with Catherine’s reliance on dramatic invention, AK Golding’s versatility and Sam Newton who dons a skirt to change from the suitor Henry Tilney into Catherine’s rather plain mother who lives in an unremarkably plain vicarage or into a pink dress to be Eleanor, Henry’s sinister sister.
I’m not sure how useful it would be for those studying Austen to see this comic production of Northanger Abbey but if they do they will need preparation beforehand and debriefing afterwards to make sure they know what is Cooper and what is Austen. I think I prefer the subtlety of Jane Austen’s own comedy to her played as farce.
Written by Jane Austen
Adapted by Zoe Cooper
Directed by Tessa Walker
Director: Tessa Walker
Designer: Hannah Sibal
Movement Director: Jonnie Riordan
Composer: Holly Khan
Lighting Designer: Matt Haskins
Sound Designer: Holly Khan
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Booking to 24th February 2024