A new source of enjoyment
By Richard Haugh
Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey arrives at Bury St Edmunds' Theatre Royal courtesy of the touring Salisbury Playhouse.
Catherine and John take a ride
Apart from the television and film adaptations, I hang my head in shame and admit to being largely ignorant of Jane Austen's work. I've certainly never read any of her novels.
So I arrived at the Theatre Royal with a sense of anticipation - looking forward to finding out what I've been missing out on and hoping it didn't disappoint.
First off, praise must go to the revamped theatre and Bury St Edmunds itself. Walking around the beautifully lit cathedral area of the town on a winter's night is enjoyable enough in itself, and making the approach to the Theatre Royal had a real sense of an event.
Inside, the theatre is stunning. Small, compact but wonderfully decorated, the arena successfully transports you in to what seems like a different (genuinely Georgian?) time, far away from today's TV dominated culture.
The boxed seating has already had its detractors. Some say the seats aren't comfortable enough whilst others have been inconvenienced by the way the folding seats effectively fence in the front rows of each enclosure.
Although neither of these were a factor for me on the night, I did sympathise with a couple who were seated on the flank of the theatre. When the actors were situated over their side of the stage, it looked as if they couldn't see what was happening and soon took to looking around the audience instead.
Fun at the Abbey
The play itself was a joy from the start. The plot follows country girl Catherine Morland as she discovers the joys of dancing, attending social events and travelling to glamorous cities such as Bath and London.
She's guided by the confident and persuasive Isabella Thorpe, who adopts Catherine as her new best friend but eventually makes it clear that this is conditional on things always going her way.
This friendship is tested when Catherine declines the advances of the troublesome, but approved by Isabella, John Thorpe and instead falls for outsider Henry Tilney.
Henry, son of the esteemed General Tilney, is charm personified, cares little for the difference in social ranking between himself and Catherine and shows an unusually high regard for women's rights. The same can't be said for General Tilney, who is determined that Henry will marry a girl who will bring neither shame nor poverty to the family.
A comical series of events unfolds, as John's meddling backfires, General Tilney lays out the red carpet at his Northanger Abbey estate for Catherine in the belief that she's soon to inherit a fortune, and Isabella finds herself in the middle of a love triangle.
Meanwhile, Henry and Catherine make the most of the brief and infrequent time they have together in the hope that their love for each other will overcome all that's plotting against them.
Catherine and Isabella
The quality of acting throughout is superb, especially with Jenni Maitland as Catherine and Emma Hamilton as Isabella. The duo glow on stage and are quick to build a believably strong friendship.
The dialogue is excellent, frequently laugh out loud funny and delivered with skill from all the cast.
In fact, everything about the production oozes class. The set which comprises of a row of eight doors means the focus remains with the actors, while the lighting successfully enhances the mood when called upon.
I found the recorded piano soundtrack distracting to start with, and still think it was slightly unnecessary, but at certain points it did add to the jovial spirit of the play.
But that's a small criticism for what was a thoroughly entertaining production - one which reminded me how dynamic and thrilling the English language can be when in the right hands.
last updated: 15/11/07
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