Northanger Abbey (Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds, 2017)

If you’ve been around my blog for a while, you may have picked up that Northanger Abbey is a novel very close to my heart: I mentioned in my Characters I Connected With post that Catherine Morland was a character I related to a lot as a teenager. It is, although very closely followed by Emma, my favourite Austen novel. So when I saw that the Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds stage adaptation of Northanger Abbey would be coming to my local theatre as part of its tour, my friends and I decided we had to go and see it. This was an enjoyable adaptation, that maintained the humour of Austen’s novel, but failed somewhat to capture the characters as they appear in the source text.

Northanger Abbey follows the story of Catherine Morland as she experiences her first stay in the city of Bath and is forced to navigate deceitful friends, misunderstandings, love, and the downfall of her own imagination. With a deep love for thrilling novels, Catherine spends much of the narrative reading The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe and relating her own life to aspects of that novel, particularly her romantic involvement with Henry Tilney and subsequent stay at the eponymous Northanger Abbey.

This was a fast-paced, fast-talking adaptation of Northanger Abbey, with a consistent humour that maintained Austen’s satirical tone throughout. I enjoyed the way that the script and the actors were able to bring out the subtle irony that makes Northanger Abbey such a unique Austen novel; the audience were laughing throughout the production, enjoying Catherine’s awkwardness and Henry’s teasing. There were no hesitations in terms of pacing, particularly since the narrative moved swiftly between the main plot of Northanger Abbey and excerpts from The Mysteries of Udolpho. This is actually the second stage adaptation of Northanger Abbey I’ve seen which used this particular device, and it does add an understanding of where Catherine is getting her ideas from that is maybe unclear to a modern day audience unfamiliar with the work of Ann Radcliffe.

However, if our group was representative of a wider audience, I think it was clear that a previous knowledge of the narrative was essential for understanding what was happening on stage. The switching between The Mysteries of Udolpho and Catherine’s narrative, combined with the speed with which lines were delivered, meant that for anyone who came to the performance with absolutely no knowledge of Northanger Abbey, it was a confusing experience. Adaptations always walk a fine line between targeting fans of the source text and targeting a new audience for whom this will be the first experience with the narrative; I did feel this production veered too far towards targeting those who were already fans of the novel at the expense of those who might have become interested in it through the adaptation.

My other issue with the production was that many of the characters just seemed a little out-of-character. Although Eva Feiler definitely portrayed the childish innocence of Catherine, she did seem almost too childish in comparison to the novel, was definitely much louder than I would usually have imagined her. I think the best word I could use to describe the way these characters were portrayed would be ‘exaggerated’.

This was an enjoyable evening out, and I think it would be a production that I would definitely feel more positive about if it hadn’t been an adaptation of one of my favourite novels. Perhaps it suffered from coming so soon after I had seen such a fantastic adaptation of I Capture the Castle, but I came away a little disappointed. Having said that, it was definitely a fun production and I am very thankful that there are people willing to adapt this lesser-known Austen novel.

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