Northanger Abbey – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was her first completed work, yet it shows a writer already on top form.

A biting look at social manners and the dangers of mixing fact and fiction, it provides strong material for a stage adaptation. Tim Luscombe makes full use of Austen’s source material, bringing her vivid characters colourfully to the stage.

Northanger Abbey is an inspired choice for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds to stage their first community production. The social scene in the West Country providing ample opportunity for a large cast to create a range of characters.

There is also an inspired choice of location, utilising the period features of Bury St Edmunds’ ancient Guildhall.

This is a semi-promenade performance. Act one takes place in the panelled banqueting hall, its natural elegance, chandeliers and paintings providing an effective backdrop to the country set social whirl.

Act two moves to the darker court room, its columned gallery providing the necessary nooks and crannies of Northanger Abbey.

Young Catherine Morland is obsessed by the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe; one, The Mysteries of Udolpho, in particular seems to obsess Catherine. Its hold on her is so great that she often mistakes fantasy for reality. Invited to the season of balls, dances and socialising in Bath, Catherine soon becomes entangled in the complexities of etiquette, social standing and romance.

As two suitors compete for her attentions, class, formality and even her obsession with the gothic threaten to spoil any chance of happiness she has.

Staged with minimal props, utilising instead the atmospheric soundings, Northanger Abbey nevertheless looks the part, thanks in no small means to the detailed period costume. It also helps that the company have obviously worked hard to understand period social conventions, poise and deportment.

Given that some the cast where making their stage debut it is an impressive ensemble, with even the smallest of parts carefully thought out.

As the romantic leads Syvenja Rogers (Catherine) and Peter Keogh (Henry) work well together, there is a real chemistry between the two, although of course kept in check by the restraints of society at the time. There are also impressive performances from Greg Hanson as John Thorpe, the spiteful cause of many of Catherine’s predicaments and from Holly Delefortri as Isabella, caught up in her own romantic triangle but also acting as narrator for the evening.

Direction from Lynn Whitehead, Sally Walters and Amy Wyllie makes good use of the long, narrow spaces and keeps the action flowing with pace while never loosing the human factor.

This is the first community production by the Theatre Royal and, on this impressive debut, they are surely a company to watch in the future.

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