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Northanger Abbey - A Theatre Review

Northanger Abbey - A Theatre Review

At Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre, on May 2nd, the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds Production of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey commenced its week’s run. Having recently visited Austen’s house (now a museum) in Hampshire, in which she lived the last eight years of her life, it was my first real connection to the author, which introduced an amount of anticipation for this theatre visit.

Completed in 1803, it was Austen’s first novel but, sadly, was not published until after her death in 1817. The novel is commonly regarded as a satire of the Gothic literary genre, popular at the time of its writing. Indeed, the author wrote the heroine, Catherine Morland, as thinking her life was like living in a Gothic novel but, for the young woman, her real-life experiences did not relate to her imaginary life. Interestingly, Catherine was written as the daughter of a country clergyman, with many siblings, as Jane actually was. More explicitly humorous than her other works, Northanger Abbey contains many literary allusions to enhance it as a work of light-hearted parody.

The story sees the seventeen-year-old Catherine, played by the delightfully versatile Eva Feiler, taken to visit Bath for the social season. She is soon introduced to, and attracted by, Henry Tilney, played in a lightly humorous, but suitably earnest manner, by Harry Livingstone. When she accepts an invitation to Northanger Abbey, the country seat of the Tilney family, headed by Henry’s father, the forbidding General Tilney, she imagines it to be exotic and frightening. However, it is not as she imagined in her favourite gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe: indeed, her over-active imagination leads her astray and into all manner of misunderstandings. Fortunately, eventually all is resolved with Henry asking for Catherine’s hand in marriage. Catherine’s other notable relationship, with her friend Isabella Thorpe, played by the vivacious Annabelle Terry was, for me, a highlight of the production – a veritably humorous and attractive double-act.   

In addition to its overwhelming faux ‘Gothicness’, Northanger Abbey contains Austen’s recurrent themes of intricacies of high society, partner selection, conflicts of marriage for love or wealth, maturation into adulthood, and social criticism, as a comedy of manners. I left the theatre with a greater appreciation of her societal observation, humour and adroitness.  For me, the writer Tim Luscombe’s adaptation, and Karen Simpson’s direction of the cast, pared down to just eight characters, presented a very entertaining and enjoyable evening, as it appeared to so for all of the first night audience. 

With its seemingly endless stream of high quality entertainments, the New Wolsey’s programme presents an astonishing variety of productions. Within a month, I have travelled from the pinball wizardry of The Who’s Tommy, to the genteelness of Austen’s Georgian Bath. How fortunate we are to have this theatre in Ipswich.  

 Review by Robert Carr, undergraduate on the BA (Hons) English course at the University of Suffolk                         

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