Brighton Fringe 2013
A stage adaption of Jane Austen’s comic story about a Gothic novel-obsessed young girl falling in love in Bath, cleverly performed using a mixture of live performance and naïve puppetry by two person theatre company Box Tale Soup.
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey follows Catherine Moreland, a sheltered 17-year-old girl who is obsessed with Gothic novels. On her first visit to Bath with family friends Mr and Mrs Allen she meets two pairs of siblings, the Tilneys and the Thorpes. Henry Tilney is a charming young man who seems to be showing an interest in Catherine and he introduces her to his sister Eleanor.
Catherine also becomes friends with Isabella Thorpe and Isabella’s brother John, a boorish young man, who attempts to woo Catherine too. Isabella gets engaged to Catherine’s brother, James, and everything seems to be well, but matters become complicated when it turns out that the Morelands are less wealthy than either the Thorpes or the Tilneys believed.
The great strength of Box Tale Soup’s production of Northanger Abbey is in its deceptive simplicity. The play opens with just six puppets lined up along the back wall and an old suitcase in the centre of the stage. The two actors begin by unpacking the set, building cardboard candelabra and laying out clothing, before assuming their roles.
The actors, Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne take the parts of the leads, Catherine Moreland and Henry Tilney, with Byrne also doubling as the narrator, while the other characters – Mr and Mrs Allen, John and Isabella Thorpe, James Moreland, Eleanor Tilney and Henry’s father, Mr Tilney senior – are all represented by puppets.
The acting from both performers is outstanding – Antonia Christophers conveys vivid emotions with her incredibly expressive face, while Byrne is dry and smooth as the Austenian hero. They swap skilfully between puppets and humans throughout the play, passing puppets back and forward between them as suits the plot, playing their own role and that of one or two of the other characters simultaneously. The personalities of the puppet characters are mainly conveyed through their voices and it particularly impressive that the two actors successfully manage to keep the characters seamless and the voices recognisable even when swapping between them.
Smart tricks are used to provide the extra characters: when Byrne is Mr Tilney he has a brown jacket on, without the jacket he is the narrator. When Catherine first meets Henry Tilney he is introduced to her by a maître d’ at the Pump Rooms. This is amusingly managed by Byrne presenting the empty jacket as Mr Tilney, then putting the jacket on to become Tilney.
The play deftly manages to compress and simplify the plot of Jane Austen’s novel into just over an hour of performance while still following the main thread of the story and retaining the essence of the novel, with only slight adjustments to reduce the number of characters.
There is very little set, but neither the play nor the venue really need it. The suitcase is transformed into a carriage and an old chest, and the rustic, homemade-looking candlesticks and flowers for outdoor scenes complement the style of the costumes and the puppets. Awareness was shown that the audience would not be able to see items at floor level and whenever the flowers were brought out they were held up before being placed on the floor.
The sparseness of the set keeps the focus on the acting and also highlights the play’s bookish origins, forcing the audience to set the scene with their own imaginations.
The book theme is carried on through the costumes too. The costumes, like the set, are kept simple, with a leaning towards the appropriate period, but in shades mainly of white and cream, reminiscent of paper. This paper connection is made more explicit as collars, pockets and belts are sewn in a complementary fabric covered in printed text that looks like it has been torn from a book.
The puppets have a naïve, childlike quality, and continue the visual theme with paper hair and drawn on faces, seemingly opened-mouthed with joy, rather like Muppets. The exception to this is the elder Mr Tilney, who is a dark looming Gothic figure, humorously personifying some of Catherine’s scary fantasies.
Although all the puppets are similar, subtle differences in hairstyle and dress convey something of their personalities and each family is differentiated by a coloured scarf or handkerchief: blue for the Morelands, purple for the Tilneys, red for the Thorpes and green for the Allens. When Catherine Moreland marries Henry Tilney at the end, she symbolically removes the blue scarf she is wearing.
The sound and lighting is carefully thought out, not just to complement the action, but to convey a sense of place and mood. At the beginning gentle background music is played on violins and woodwind, while at the Pump Rooms, the ballroom atmosphere is expressed through dance music. When Catherine opens her Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, it is accompanied by dramatic organ music.
The lighting changes to match the location: bright white light for outside, a dull red for inside Northanger Abbey and when Catherine realises she has shamed herself by getting too carried away with her own imaginings, her thoughts are reflected visually by the lighting around her dimming.
It’s this subtlety and attention to detail that makes the play such a joy. While it on the surface it is quite a simple adaptation, the devil is in the detail, and the amount of thought and care that has gone into the both the acting and the visual production is evident. It’s a delightfully charming adaptation that seems to capture and distil the essence of Jane Austen’s novel.
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey will be at the Oxford Fringe on 8 June 2013