Northanger Abbey (by Zoe Cooper, from the novel by Jane Austen) Back

If the heroine of Austen’s satirical romance Northanger Abbey lived today, she would probably be a keen follower of BookTok and write lengthy (but accomplished) fanfiction. Catherine Morland’s love of gothic novels, combined with her inclination towards fantasy, leads her into some ill-advised scrapes. It is these elements of Catherine’s character that Zoe Cooper’s new interpretation at the Orange Tree Theatre celebrates. In Cooper’s hands ‘Cath’ becomes the author of her own story. But she must also contend with a genre which (she comes to learn) was not written with her in mind.

In Austen’s coming-of-age novel, first published posthumously in 1817, the naïve but kind-hearted Catherine – a devotee of the gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe – has an imagination that tends to run away with her. Finding herself swept up in the glittering society of Regency Bath, and off her feet by Henry Tilney (whose home, the suitably gothic sounding Northanger Abbey, lends the novel its title) Catherine soon learns that there is more psychological terror in a friend’s unkind word than all the crumbling castles in Italy. And yet, there is something dispiriting about Catherine’s bildungsroman. Returning home with a proposal from the unerringly patronising Henry, and with her lively imagination firmly in check, Catherine has matured. However, she has lost much of her individuality in the process.

Cooper figures her heroine’s maturation differently. In a queer interpretation of Austen’s novel, the centre of focus shifts from Catherine and Henry’s sweet but pedestrian romance to the substantially more passionate ‘friendship’ between Cath (Rebecca Banatvala) and Iz (AK Golding). Cooper transforms Austen’s deliciously despicable Isabella Thorpe from a fortune hunting fair-weather-friend to a closeted lesbian struggling to fit into a society which clearly defines her “proper place” as a wife and mother. The at times effete Henry Tilney becomes the gentle Hen (Sam Newton), “heartsore and broken by who [he can] no longer hold,” who seeks marriage with his friend Cath as a “happy enough ending.” Cath finds herself torn between her ardent feelings for her “bosom friend” Iz, and the life her beloved novels have taught her to imagine for herself. Where Austen wrote a coming-of-age novel, Cooper could be said to have written a coming-out play.

There is also something of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) to Cooper’s adaptation. Cath is revealed to be the author of the story, which the audience is watching her invent in real time. Iz and Hen are her (at times enthusiastic, at others reluctant) playfellows, playing both themselves and other supporting cast members like Iz’s alpha male brother John, and Cath’s wealthy family friends the Allans. The three friends joyfully re-enact their shared history, but Iz and Hen soon find themselves in thrall to Cath’s creative licence. Like Gerwig’s Jo, Cath’s happy ending is no longer a white wedding, but the fruition of her writing ambitions.

The production is effectively metatheatrical. The intimate setting of the Orange Tree and the bare-bones stage (dressed rather than set) enhance the playful storytelling of the three-person cast, who multi-role very successfully. Tessa Walker’s masterful direction makes high concept moments – like the creation of a carriage out of suitcases – feel completely natural. The production also pokes fun at its own limitations, such as when Hen realises he can no longer play Mrs Allan in the first ball scene as he has “another most important role in this bit.” Sam Newton shines as Hen’s female characters, conjuring a cheerfully overworked Mrs Morland, and an Eleanor Tilney who gives Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers a run for her money. AK Golding deftly portrays how Iz’s initial enthusiasm for the project transforms into resentment of Cath’s authorial control, playing the moment Cath writes her out of the story with tear-jerking pathos. Rebecca Banatvala is enchanting as Cath, by turns delighted, bemused, and offended by her ‘superior’ company. Her increasing frustration with the passive aggressive correction of her Northern pronunciation becomes a running gag that – as a fellow Northerner – was satisfying to watch. There is something of a bossy child to Banatvala’s Cath, determined the game should always follow her rules. But she also beautifully captures Cath’s confusion and discomfort when reality fails to live up to her fantasy.

This narrative framing device adds poignancy to the frustrated hopes and differing reminiscences of the play’s three central characters. The gothic novels to which Cath is devoted provide the framework for her own narrative, but they also act as constant reminders of how much these characters do not fit into the stories they have been told. In one telling duologue, Iz reveals that she does not “find herself” in novels as they are not “written for girls like her.” As a result, Cooper’s Northanger Abbey speaks to the current popularity of historical romance novels like the Bridgerton series, and how its dedicatees often turn to social media platforms and fanfiction to express their frustration at a genre that refuses to make space for queer characters.

Yet the romance between Cath and Iz is far from idyllic. In a moment of anger, Iz describes Cath (who admits that she could imagine herself loving a man) as “a greedy girl who wants to eat all of the cake.” The barb is largely aimed at Cath’s careless suggestion that they each marry the other’s brother, so that they may continue to visit each other’s bedchambers at night without arousing suspicion. Nevertheless, Iz’s vitriolic delivery suggests that she is uncomfortable with the fact that Cath’s sexuality is not binary. There was a nod here to the conversation around bisexual erasure that, had time allowed, I would have loved to have seen developed further.

That being said, Cooper’s Northanger Abbey is a joyful celebration of queer love, female writers, and the power of the imagination. The parting image of Iz finally finding herself between the pages of Cath’s newly published novel validates both their relationship, and Cath’s literary aspirations. In the play’s final moments, Cath sits down beneath a cherry tree and begins to write. One cannot help but picture the young Jane Austen doing the same, enthusiastically embarking on what would become some of Britain’s most beloved works of fiction.

Northanger Abbey is at the Orange Tree Theatre until 24th February 2024.