While Catherine Morland is visiting Bath with her aunt, she is introduced to the hustle and bustle of polite society and dazzling parties that she is denied at home. While in Bath she meets and becomes friends with Isabella Thorpe and her uncouth brother, John, before becoming charmed by their polar opposites Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor. Despite her enjoyment of daily life immersed in Bath society, Catherine is delighted in time to accept an invitation to Henry’s country family home of Northanger Abbey. Throughout all of her experiences, her thoughts are full of the melodramatic fantasies of Mrs Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho…
In Tim Luscombe’s stage version of Jane Austin’s classic novel, Director Linda Hayman is able to embrace her previous directorial enthusiasm for Gothic productions and successfully bring a Jane Austin classic to the Studio Theatre for the first time in its history. With the calibre of this production, it is unlikely that Northanger Abbey will be the last Austin tale to be performed here!
From the very first moments, Hayman’s skilful direction and eye for detail is evident: the movement of the travellers in the carriages, observation of the social etiquettes of the day, almost faultless varying pace capturing the ideal balance between comedy and dramatic tension, perfectly created tableaux, the Regency Period social dances and the development of excellent characters. The comedy in the writing is brought vividly to life, but for me the slick transitions between the refined ‘real’ characters and the melodramatic representation (in the heightened style of silent movies) of the ‘fictional’ characters from Udolpho as extracts from the book are read, mixed with Catherine’s wild imagination, are one of the many highlights of the evening.
Laura Melville is magnificent in the role of Catherine, giving a performance that is the epitome of an Austin heroine; Catherine’s thought process is clearly seen at all times across Melville’s face, her physicality and focus, Catherine’s poise and spirit captured to a tee, the emotions that Catherine goes through as she dances with Henry palpable. She makes an engaging and sincere couple with Kris Hamilton, who is absolutely splendid in the role of affable, charming (despite some more chauvinistic traits typical of the time!) and trustworthy Henry, and the couple’s connection with each other is beautifully portrayed.
Melville also shares a wonderful onstage rapport with the equally impressive Madeleine Ellis (Isabella) – the deportment, etiquette, mannerisms and precise speech of Received Pronunciation of the period are so different from their contemporary counterparts, but together Melville and Ellis bring such natural credibility to their performances that you really believe the changing dynamics of this female friendship. Ellis is outstanding in the role, the antithesis of Catherine’s steadfast attractiveness; her character is less beautiful of soul than she is beautiful of face, but she turns on the charm when it suits her to do so, the ugly jealous and spiteful side of her character switching on and off as she manipulates those around her for her maximum benefit (perhaps a slightly unfair assessment of her character bearing in mind the social politics at the time) and Ellis perfectly portrays the multidimensional aspects of Isabella.
There are some delightful performances amongst the supporting roles, particularly from the Youth Theatre section: Charlie Thompson’s energy and comic aptitude as the duplicitous and conceited John, Cassia Woolley is elegantly enchanting as Henry’s compassionate sister, with both Adam Pinnock’s earnest, facially expressive performance as Catherine’s brother, James, and Martha Rose McKeown’s captivating cameo roles being further examples of the burgeoning talent to be nurtured and developed amongst the younger members of the cast.
But it is not just the performances that impress throughout; the production elements have all combined to create a comprehensively cohesive, full-company box of delights. The brilliant projected images onto the simply effective set help to assist swift and smooth scene changes and changes in locations, enhanced by atmospheric lighting and excellent sound effects. The costumes and hair design are wonderful, instantly transporting the audience to Regency England, with the smallest details in the ideal props really lifting the whole aesthetic appeal (such as the illusion of crystal glass picnic wine glasses).
Reluctantly, I admit that there are a couple of minor agitations that for me slightly detract from an otherwise marvellous production: carpet backstage would dampen the scurrying of actors from one side of the stage to the other; with the initial furniture scene changes performed so effortlessly by cast members in costume, how I wished that the two stage crew later on were also in costume, as this would have enhanced the otherwise seamless changeovers, rather than draw the eye for the wrong reason; and a significant brief miscasting towards the end (perhaps enforced by cast numbers, although I cannot reveal who for risk of spoilers!) did break the magic momentarily with a sudden jolt.
However, although not perfect, this was overall probably the best Jane Austin amateur production that I’ve been privileged to see, with some cracking performances, and I would recommend anyone who loves Austin’s work to make the trip to Studio Theatre in Salisbury and enjoy a worthwhile visit to Northanger Abbey.
Ends Saturday 25 May, 7.30pm each evening.