North East Post
A Voice of the Free Press
Mike Tilling
Arts Correspondent
8:59 AM 1st April 2024

High Energy Northanger Abbey

(L-R)AK Golding, Rebecca Banatvala, Sam Newton
Photo: Pamela Raith Photography©
(L-R)AK Golding, Rebecca Banatvala, Sam Newton Photo: Pamela Raith Photography©
I read Zoe Cooper’s programme notes with increasing dismay. If there was evidence of a chip on the shoulder in the first sentence, it had become a sack of spuds by the last.

At university, she did not like people who knew ‘which cutlery to use at a formal dinner’. She has a memory of some vindictive lecturer disparaging Northanger Abbey as a'satire on (silly female) gothic novel(s)’. This is twenty years ago, and yet in his famous critical work The Great Tradition of 1946 (note: seventy-seven years ago), F. R. Leavis identifies four outstanding writers (in this order): Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. Perhaps Northanger Abbey was not on the syllabus at Cooper’s university because it is not comparable with the towering achievements of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility?

Rebecca Banatvala
Rebecca Banatvala
Closing the programme, I turned to the action on stage.

It began auspiciously enough: a demure young woman in an Empire Line dress and bonnet quartering the audience with a "good evening". Perhaps the costume indicated a production closer to Austen’s text than I had anticipated. And then we launched into a rapid-fire dialogue. With the speed of delivery and the multiple characters taken by the three actors, I must admit to having problems keeping up.

(L-R)  AK Golding, Rebecca Banatvala
Photo: Pamela Raith Photography©
(L-R) AK Golding, Rebecca Banatvala Photo: Pamela Raith Photography©
Still, there were enough familiar scenes to keep Austen’s plot tangible. However, I do not recall anything like a specifically lesbian subplot between Catherine and Isabella, and I do not think Jane Austen intended any. No theatregoer expects that a novel will transpose exactly into a stage play, and we are used to directors taking liberties, but really, explicit sexual contact from Jane Austen?

Don’t worry, it’s only a kiss.

In what is, at times, a high-energy production, the three actors adopt multiple roles while delivering their lines. Confusingly, some adoptive characters were played by an actor who had not inhabited that persona earlier in the play, but the use of hats provided some consistency.

Rebecca Banatvala provided charm as the ingenue Catherine Morland. While she is innocent, she is also highly imaginative; indeed, it is sometimes difficult to know where imagination begins and reality ends. Her performance is spirited and highly energetic.

A.K Golding’s shift as Isabella Thorpe is also animated, but in contrast to Catherine, she is rather lacking in either insight or originality.

Sam Newton
Photo: Pamela Raith Photography©
Sam Newton Photo: Pamela Raith Photography©
Henry Thorpe (Sam Newton), however, is one of Austen’s most original characters, being not only a thoroughly nice chap but also an expert in women’s dresses. Newton is called on to play a woman giving birth in the opening scene, to the boorish John Thorpe later, while playing ‘Hen’ throughout. That is versatility.

As usual for Stephen Joseph, props were minimal—just tables, boxes, and a chaise longue, wheeled on as needed—but designer Hannah Sibai had come up with some imaginative uses for a chandelier. As usual, all technical cues were perfect.

I wonder what the many Jane Austen fans in the audience made of it? Perhaps eyes not already attuned to the Austen oeuvre might have been more tolerant, but for me, there was too much Zoe and not enough Jane.

Northanger Abbey is on at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough until 13 April 2024