Northanger Abbey

Greenwich Theatre

I am extremely disappointed that a very busy week forced me to wait until last night to see Greenwich Theatre’s latest offering. After a slightly-lacklustre season so far (one dud, one cancelled, one not bad and one I just couldn’t bring myself to see,) this one is a delightfully frothy piece of Regency nonsense, full of gallant heroes, dastardly villains, silly young girls and even sillier old ladies. The reason I am so disappointed is that the theatre was less than half full and the production doesn’t deserve such poor attendance.

Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe were pretty much exact contemporaries. Okay, so Mrs Radcliffe was born before and died after Jane Austen and The Mysteries of Udolpho was written about 23 years before Northanger Abbey, but even so it’s hard not to find Austen’s blatant criticism of Gothic potboilers rather bold. It’s like Ian McEwan writing a book about how crap Dan Brown is – though probably with less potential of a major court case.

I’m sure that when I read Northanger Abbey, albeit a long, long time ago, there weren’t that many direct references to Udolpho; that the Gothic genre as a whole was poked fun at, but if, as I suspect, this production of Northanger Abbey has taken liberties and quoted freely from Radcliffe’s creepy classic, then it works very well.

Catherine Moreland, who normally irritates the hell out of me, is a delightfully excitable young girl who reads too many Penny Dreadfuls. Taken to Bath for the season To Find A Husband, she is mistaken for an heiress by several designing coves – not least an ambitious old father and a fabulously swaggering young gallant, who strides and puffs himself around the stage much like Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Of course, the man who is to be her true love doesn’t care about mere money, but, after an unfortunate misunderstanding where she thinks his father either murdered or locked up his mother, it all goes horribly wrong before the usual happy ending.

What makes this production work is the way that both Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe’s works are referenced. The action is punctuated with lurid extracts from the book that Catherine’s reading (The Mysteries of Udolpho, of course) which really helps to make her wild imagination come to life. (I thought they must have trawled through that doorstop of a novel to have found quotes like that, but when I got home, I took my copy off the shelf and opened it at random. It really is stuffed full of skeletons, dark passages and creepy counts – they may well have just opened the book at the first page they found…)

The script is, for the most part, very witty, making full use of any saucy double-entendres they could find – “Shall we play with the puppies before tea, Mr Tilney?” – though it does slow in a few places. But then, if I’m honest, so does the novel, which is one of my least-favourite Austens. And for me it went on ever so slightly too long. Ever since the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice, every Austen adaptation has to have a compulsory wedding – which, frankly, I could lose (at least it’s not as bad as the American ending of the recent P&P movie, which had me cringing with embarrassment only slightly less than the actors themselves. “Mrs Darcy, Mrs Darcy, Mrs Darcy…” Jane Austen must have been spinning in her grave at that bit of dialogue.)

I really liked the clean, Regency lines of the 8-door set and the simple-but effective costumes work extremely well (even the doubling of the actor who plays John Thorpe as the taciturn Captain Tilney complete with chocolate soldier’s uniform and an only slightly dodgy moustache.) The production manages to stay both true to the book and to gently poke fun at the gothic genre, which is not as easy to pull off today as it would have been in the early 19th Century when it was much more universally known. I recommend this play, though I guess I should warn you chaps that this is, essentially, quite a girly piece. There might have been more-or-less equal numbers of men and women in the audience but I’ll wager the women enjoyed it slightly more than the men.

Go see. It’s sweet, fun, frothy stuff, delightful escapism to a world where a girl dropping her hanky is enough to put everyone into a swoon…

Northanger Abbey is on until Saturday 13 October.

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