Theatre Review: Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen’s Gothic novel NORTHANGER ABBEY loses the thrill of intrigue in a lifeless stage production.

NORTHANGER Abbey was the first novel that Jane Austen completed for publication, drawing on the tradition of a young lady’s entrance into the world alongside a defence of the novel form.

This burlesque of the popular Gothic novels of the late 18th century is however a tricky thing to transfer to other mediums. Main character and country girl Catherine Morland’s coming of age story is full of youthful high spirits, which sadly fall flat in this disappointing production by Traffic of the Stage.

The most successful versions of classic novels on stage tend to have striking visuals and an unusual angle to explore. Designer Bryan Hands provides a beautifully painted backdrop, but director Harry Meacher offers so little movement or emotional engagement that the act of staging the piece seems redundant.

The only theatrical aspect of John Cooper’s adaptation is to intersperse Austen’s narrative with tableaux from leading lady Catherine’s favourite book - Ann Radcliffe’s very horrid Mysteries of Udolpho. Whilst fidelity to the source isn’t something to be discouraged, a scene-by-scene re-enactment doesn’t make for scintillating theatre. This becomes particularly obvious when the dialogue is delivered with the animation of role-playing mannequins.

These are two tiresome hours that could be better spent reading the novel or listening to Juliet Stevenson narrate the audio book. Austen’s wit wilts under the lifeless direction and even Mrs Radcliffe - often deemed unreadable these days - has more bite than anything found here.

* Showing at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate Village, N6, until Saturday, May 14.