Watching the cast of Traffic of the Stage’s Northanger Abbey parade around the pump room, I was struck by two thoughts: one, how insipid a lead protagonist Austen had created in Catherine Morland; and two, how astonishingly long Victoria Emslie as the heroine could go without blinking.
This production of Northanger Abbey has all the hallmarks of an enjoyable night at the theatre – dastardly characters and bounders, fine muslin dresses, romance, a little gothic horror and the redemptive characters of Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Austen’s account of a naive young girl from the country learning to navigate her way around society and the Bath pump rooms lends itself beautifully to a comedic stage production. Fergus Rees and Anna Passey as the treacherous Thorpe siblings do particularly well in emphasising the humour in Catherine’s story, though the two are played as so openly unscrupulous from the off that you have to wonder how Victoria Emslie’s Catherine can tolerate their company at all. The nod of the evening however goes to Henry Tilney, excellently played by Oliver King who makes the most of Henry’s subtle, wry humour.
Disappointingly little is made of the Mysteries of Udolpho thread that runs concurrent to the central budding romance of Catherine and Mr Tilney. Instead it is reduced to a few eerily-lit snapshots, screams and contorted faces, where perhaps much more could have been made of the parallels within. That said, the sub-plot is frighteningly well-played by Tom Reah and Sasha Jacques especially.
As for Bryan Hands’s set, the limits of Upstairs at the Gatehouse's intimate space are clear, though perhaps a little more could have been made of the theatre, as only one set piece differentiated in height, and even then it was used only by the Udolpho characters of Catherine’s “fevered imagination”. Thankfully the peek into the Bath streets provided by the backdrop gives the impression of a larger space and a little airiness.
All in, this is a “tolerably pretty” production with the company providing an enjoyably acted evening for an Austen and period drama fan. Fun to watch, if occasionally a little rough around the edges.
- Laura Tosney