Jane Austen completed Northanger Abbey when she was not long out of her teens, and at its heart is an inexperienced heroine whose imagination is utterly dominated by the Gothic novels she reads. Catherine Morland makes her first trip to Bath obsessed with wicked aristocrats, mysterious disappearances, hidden passages, and dark secrets - in other words, quite unprepared to enter the real world as Austen sees it.
Northanger Abbey tells the story of her romantic progress from wide-eyed adolescent to bride of sensible clergyman Henry Tilney. The turning point in this story is her stay at the Tilneys’ home, where she learns some painful lessons about what the world is really like.
Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of the novel cleverly makes the most of the contrast between Gothic melodrama and the rather more civilised perils of entering society and finding a husband by switching between scenes as they are and Catherine’s overheated imaginings of them.
All the cast have great fun with these scenery-chewing interludes, with Catherine’s introduction to the Abbey via Maggie Tarney’s Igor-channelling servant a particular highlight. But the play’s real tension lies in whether Miss Morland’s budding good sense will be enough on its own to save her from the gold-digging brother and sister team of Isabella and John Thorpe. Here Vanessa Johnson’s Catherine feels too emotionally bedraggled, hands retreating into her sleeves in the manner of a contemporary teenager, to prove much of a match for the muscularly predatory poise of Andrew Grose’s John, or the decidedly more grown-up charms of Rebecca Elliott’s Isabella.
It is left to James Hogg’s Henry Tilney – a model of faintly fogeyish tolerance and amused affection – to finally rescue for happiness a Catherine who too often seems more victim than heroine. Their union is both a social and a romantic happy ending.
The directing duo of Ian Forrest and Mary Papadima make the most of Henry Tilney’s remark that dancing is ‘an emblem of marriage’ to fill the Bath half of the play with dances (beautifully choreographed by Lorelei Lynn). This dominant image of social and personal harmony gives way to the horrors and disappointments of Northanger, but order – and Catherine’s place in it - is reasserted finally as the production ends on a high note with a final dance, to mark her betrothal and acceptance into polite adult society.
The Theatre By The Lake's Northanger Abbey is an amusing and entertaining production, adding some laugh-out-loud fun to Jane Austen’s wry take on love and life.