REVIEW: Northanger Abbey, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, till April 13 **

Rebecca Banatvala’s Cath, back, AK Golding’s Iz and Sam Newton’s Hen in Northnager Abbey

THE journey from page to stage is familiar, well trodden, but still unpredictable for classic novels. Sometimes it works, sometimes it tries too hard, when a book remains better read than said.

This co-production by the SJT, Scarborough, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Octagon Theatre, Bolton, and Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, is one such occasion.

We have seen many adaptations in this manner: a small, busy-as-Heathrow cast working with more imagination than props in Hannah Sibai’s design, breaking down theatre’s fourth wall from the start,  speeding between roles and  differing theatre styles, but here falling short of the best work of Tilted Wig, Wise Children and Nick Lane’s adaptations.

Writer Zoe Cooper defines Jane Austen’s coming-of-age satire of Gothic novels as “a book about invention that revels in layers of fictionality, of imagination”, one that she first read at 19, roughly the same age as lead character Catherine Morland when she leaves behind her claustrophobic northern family to join the smart set in Bath.

In her programme note, Cooper recalls how she felt out of place, awkward and grubby in her posh university town. Austen’s Catherine Morland (Rebecca Banatvala’s Cath) is a bookworm who feels that same discomfort and disconnection after being drawn to Bath by books and dreams.

Cooper and Banatvala express Cath’s tendency to over-excitement and bad behaviour, ending up in difficult situations that she navigates by warping reality with fiction amid the balls and parties.

Cooper draws on another recollection of her English Literature studies, how her tutorials were “generally male, very white, and very heterosexual”. Her reading of Northanger Abbey was rather different: she liked the book because “it felt a little bit naughty” in the friendship of Catherine and society sophisticate Isabella.

That plays out passionately in this account, where the loving bond between impressionable Cath and worldly Iz (AK Golding) runs deeper than Cath’s relationship with Hen (Sam Newton).

Tessa Walker’s production, however, needs to be more humorous, darker in its Gothic climax, but that requires sharper writing by Cooper. The performances have to swim against the tide, too much work to do.

Matt Haskins’ lighting is a delight, but that should never be the stand-out feature. An Audience with Lucy Worsley on Jane Austen, with “new research and insights into a passionate woman who fought for her freedom”, at York Barbican on October 14 will be more enlightening.

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