“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine”. These are the opening lines of Jane Austen’s debut novel, Northanger Abbey, following the adolescence of Catherine as she falls in love with Henry Tilney, a man of good prospects who comes to stay in her hometown of Bath. Catherine is strong-willed and an avid reader, full of fantastical interpretations of the world from her novels. Henry is a straight-talking and darkly handsome bachelor. Things seem to be going well in their progressing relationship, but after Catherine offends Henry by failing to go on a walk with them, he becomes colder and more cutting and it is harder to know if there will be a happy ending or if his affections have turned cold.
Following a critically acclaimed adaptation of Great Expectations, theatre company Cyphers has adapted this classic into an absolutely charming production. The self-conscious style with which they conduct the simple costume and set changes in front of the audience is completely fitting to the nature of the production, turning an adaption of a seismic piece of literature into a light-hearted play. They are aware of the difficulty of what they are doing yet they do not take themselves too seriously.
There is a lovely vibe to the piece created through comical, stylised acting. But this is not to say that the piece loses any emotional gravity or subtlety. When they need to be, the relationships are still believable and naturalistic, making sure that the audience feels the touching subtle changes in the lovers’ interactions with each other and remain fully invested in its progression. There is an intense pathos that characterises the novel as you go through all the acute changes in Catherine’s life, often due to small and forgivable mistakes she makes due to her lively mind. It is a tribute to Cyphers that they retain this part of Austen’s style.
The actors are well coordinated, changing rapidly from character to another character to an onlooker to a narrator to a prop-provider. There is clever set manipulation where a singular wooden frame is used to create carriages, beds, windows and more, almost seamlessly.
A lovely sense of camaraderie is created on the stage, with tasteful audience address and with everyone participating in a suspension of disbelief — one of the incredible charms of theatre in general — and it is extremely enjoyable to watch and be involved in.
I cannot wait to see which novel Cyphers choses to adapt next.