Review by Rosie Holmes
The Orange Tree in Richmond has recently become one of my favourite theatres to visit, having enjoyed all their work in the last year. Currently, a reimagining of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey is showing. It’s playful, witty and laced with innuendo, and frankly, I was sold as soon as I arrived and saw the brightest pink stage that would put even Barbieland to shame.
Northanger Abbey was written by Austen in 1803, but posthumously published in 1818. The novel follows Catherine Morland who leaves her ‘remarkably plain’ small Northern town and accompanies some wealthier relatives to enter society in Bath. She attends balls, and dances, hoping to meet a man in possession of wealth or at least a large, gothic Abbey. Morland does indeed meet a man, Henry Tilney, but in this version, writer Zoe Cooper suggests the real romance lies between Catherine and her new best friend, Iz, presenting the story with a new queer perspective.
This is a smart and playful adaptation, full to the brim with giggle inducing innuendos but also bursting with social commentary and real emotion. Cooper gives heroine Catherine Morland agency, as Catherine retells her own story, deftly swapping between first and third person narratives. Performed by a cast of three, the actors tell the story effectively while they jump between a multitude of characters, as the play romps through Catherine Morland’s story. Rebecca Banatvalais a wonderful protagonist, as Catherine, she is swept up in fictional fantasy, but Banatvala makes her likeable throughout, and creates a rapport with the audience from the moment she enters.
Ak Golding is Iz, providing a character full of depth and passion, and with a cannon of accents in her armoury. Completing the trio is Sam Newton as Hen, again deftly swapping between characters and providing a gentle portrayal of Hen, yet minutes later giving the character of John Thorpe an almost cartoonish ridiculousness, and then playing a woman in labour. This piece is fast-paced and wordy, but the cast know exactly when to pause for comedic effect, and for the most part keep up with the quick dialogue.
Zoe Cooper has been nominated for a number of awards as a playwright, and it is clear she has a talent for writing. She cleverly adapts this 19tht century novel to give agency to its female characters and to represent voices and people that she herself did not see in novels as a young person. Unfortunately, the play loses its way a little in the second act, the running time maybe being 20 minutes or so too long. The ending feels a little laboured as the show is wrapped up, casting Cath as the writer of her own story, which doesn’t quite have the powerful effect the writer may so have desired.
For the most part, Cooper’s writing is sharply observant and full of wit, but direction from Tessa Walker’s elevates the writing, drawing every giggle, gasp and emotion from the audience. Ball scenes are interrupted by Sandy and Danny, with Grease-esque disco moves, the cast spin around on moving trunks creating dizzying effects and every joke is played directly to the audience.
There is much to enjoy about this play, Cooper handles themes of societal expectations, gender roles, sexuality and friendship with plenty of satirical wit. The cast are alive with energy and humour, its just a shame the show lots its way a little at the end. Fans of the recent Pride and Prejudice (Sort of) will no doubt enjoy this reimagining of Northanger Abbey. Though Jane Austen purists (if there is such a thing?) may not. That being said, Austen herself who littered her work with social commentary and playfulness, I think, would greatly approve of this witty reimagining of her novel.
Northanger Abbey plays at the Orange Tree Theatre until 24th February 2024, more tickets and information can be found here- Northanger Abbey - Orange Tree Theatre
Photos by Pamela Raith