JANE AUSTEN'S NORTHANGER ABBEY
Greenwich Theatre, London SE10
Opened 8 July, 1996

With stage and screen adaptations aplenty, Jane Austen fever continues apparently unabated. Matthew Francis's version of her 1797 novel (published posthumously some 20 years later) carries an ungainly authorial prefix on its title were we going to confuse it, perhaps, with Irvine Welsh's Northanger Abbey? but in fact works not at all badly.

This may be expected for, rather than just another exquisitely wrought miniature of the Georgian middle classes, this is Miss Austen's counterblast to the Gothic novel, with its breathtaking scenery, dank dungeons, nefarious plots and secret identities. Francis incorporates a few additional extracts from the novels of Mrs Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries Of Udolpho, the Gothic tale which so fascinates Austen's heroine Catherine Morland. Although these whisperings and shadows at first provide humorous insights into Catherine's fantasies, they paradoxically grow more and more unnecessary once she actually arrives at the Abbey in the second act; her final confrontation with a trio of masked figures from her imagination, in which she banishes them and their outrageous foreign accents and resolves to live in the here-and-now, even verges on the cringeworthy.

For the most part, though, Francis shows a sure footing as both adaptor and director. Drawing Austen's characters (in particular her supporting cast) broadly enough for the stage can easily result in a gaggle of wittering caricatures, but performances here are pitched uniformly well. Sarah-Jane Holm as Catherine keeps her girlish enthusiasm this side of breathlessness, James Wallace hits Henry Tilney's dry irony squarely on the nose, and Rebecca Saire captures the wandering eyes and hollow heart of Isabella Thorpe without forfeiting our engagement (unlike her own).

The first act, set in fashionable Bath, is prime Austen, aided by Francis's inclusion of a number of brief narrative passages, which both link scenes and retain the author's genteelly wry voice. When Catherine journeys to Northanger Abbey with the Tilneys, the deflation of her outlandish imaginings is handled nicely enough for the imaginary figure of Annette, the sinister maid, to feel intrusive. Francis occasionally loses his touch when putting original words into characters' mouths (did Jane Austen really make such liberal use of the adverb "amazingly"?), and cannot disguise that for all her skill at social dissection Miss Austen did tend to lunge indecorously towards perfunctory conclusions to her stories; but all in all the production remains true to the original author's notions of good taste and poise, nodding towards irreverence only when she herself poked elegant jibes at "horrid novels".

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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