Tuesday 30 January 2024

A REVIEW of Northanger Abbey a play by ZOE COOPER


HEN:  Sam Newton : Henry Tilney.  

CATH Rebecca Banatvala: Catherine Moreland 

IZ:      AK Golding : Isabella Thorpe


Jane Austens Northanger Abbey is often seen as a bit of fun. A swipe at the popular Gothic novel genre of the 18th century. A swipe at the gold diggers such as the Thorpes looking to get themselves advantageous marriages to better themselves financially. The personal development of a young girl supposedly with no hope of a prestigious marriage,plain looking, coming from a very average country family, poorly educated, inexperienced in life and who lives in a dream world of fantasy her life enlivened by the vicarious thrills of the Gothic novel. Zoe Coopers play inspired by the novel has all that but each of those elements are seen in an entirely new way making us think about Austen’s novel differently and perhaps more reflectively. It certainly made me think of Austen’s own life in a different way because of this play. 

Walking through the entrance to the Orange Tree Theatre which is located opposite The Orange Tree public house in Richmond upon Thames we were greeted by a smiling lady welcoming us. Two other ladies , one scanned the bar codes on my phone tickets and the other handed me the copy of the play script I had ordered online. We were welcomed effusively, all smiles and kind words. The  process of arriving at and entering the theatre  was honestly heart warming. The Orange Tree Theater is located in an old Victorian School House. We found our way into the Lower Circle, a bank of four rows of continuous benches encircling the whole arena with the performance space in the middle. An upper balcony provided more rows of seating encircling the upper level. Intimate, cosy Shakespeares Wooden O. “All the World is a stage.” (As You Like It.)  Deep pink carpeted arena and a pink balcony . The  theatre is small and compact. Five sparkling chandeliers hung from the ceiling. In anticipation of ,”Balls,” no doubt.

We found our seats and on my seat there lay a white envelope  with my name on it. I wondered what it could be. I opened it and was very pleasantly surprised to see that I had received a handwritten message welcoming me personally to the Orange Tree Theatre.

Zoe Cooper has used a fresh  academic approach to literacy criticism. Her play is about what lies under the surface of Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey. Queer Theory represents a belief that inborn benign differences between people entitle everyone to equal rights. It is a  way to analyze art, literature, music and the world around us. She has picked out personality traits and also how relationships between the characters work together through the lens of this theory.

The seats filled up and the three actors who were to perform for us appeared from three different corner entrances.The prologue began. The  actors, made eye contact with some of the audience ,conversed between each other as to who will do what and who needs to don which costumes. This whole improvistaion style lent itself to a fluidity between the three  characters, who play all the parts between them, in their relationships and in their sexual orientation. 

The play  begins. Sam Newton dons a full length dress with bulging lump positioned pregnantly over his stomach. He lays on the chaise long  in the middle of the arena groaning with  agonising birth pains that he / she  is obviously beset with. At this part he plays ,Mam, (a northern term for Mum or mother) Mam is Mrs Moreland  about to give birth to , they don’t know at first the sex of the baby.After much histrionics, screaming, crouching, pushing and heaving the baby is born.

CATH and HEN/MAM ”A boy!”

IZ/MIDWIFE “It must be a boy…”

CATH No, it can’t be because we are doing my/birth.

As you can imagine There is a lot of slipping in and out of different rolls at this point. It’s hilarious.Although I do wonder at all the mothers in the audience, what they made of a male actor portraying child birth. 

It was at this point in the play,at the very beginnng, that the term ,Pantomime ,came to my mind. Those of you who are British you will already know exactly what I mean.

”Oh no we don’t!” 

“ Oh yes you do!”

“He’s behind you!”


( Groan as much as you like!!!!)

But for those of you not British, I won’t hold it against you, ( another well used pantomime innuendo)I will explain briefly.

A pantomime ,is usually based on a fairy tale such as Cinderella.It is an exaggerated form of play, that includes men dressed as women, and women dressed as men.  There is a lot of audience participation, like shouting at the actors. Pantomime actors do expect to be shouted at by the audience.There must  lots of corny jokes, loads of innuendos and ,"pots of gold," to be discovered. Oh yes and its performed specifically for children.

This play has many elements of Pantomime although it really is not a Pantomime at all.The serious points being made are too important.

The play, for all its fun and humour, takes this Austen novel and dissects it analytically into various  levels of meaning.

The beginning I referred to,  the birth of Catherine Moreland , CATH, suggests you question male and female rolls played by individual actors but also the inner feminine and masculine side of a person.

The character of Henry Tilney, HEN ( another one of those northern terms, for a well loved female friend) who loves lace and choosing female clothing for his sister,  is one example of gender exploration. Henry also gets as much of lifes experiences from novel reading as Catherine does. A supposedly female pursuit at the time of Jane Austen.

The role of John Thorpe, the absolute opposite of HEN, also played by Sam Newton, is the supreme pantomime act. A thigh slapping, horse goading testosterone fueled, egotistical  maniac.He remnded me of Rik Mayal in the early episodes of Black Adder. Iwonder that his whipping horses, goading them on to faster and faster speeds, is a sexual metaphor or maybe not so much a metaphor . bestiality is not unknown thing. Would he have beaten Catherine like his horses if ever they did marry.?

The important relationship though in this play is that of Cath and IZ. They love each other not just on a platonic level. The second act ends in the two of them kissing.They knew soon after they first met I think, although perhaps Cath didn’t have the words for what she was experiencing.  Izzy has her male  side. She ,”decks,” a soldier with a punch. Some  soldiers about town had begun to pester and threaten them. It is quite a threatening moment when the soldiers become aware of Caths accent and country origins. The ,”country,” is played on. “She must be used to cunt try matters” the lead soldier, played by IZ,  quickly slipping between different roles, is  sinister. At other times IZ tells us she  dresses in a man’s great coat and hat and wanders the streets unchaperoned and unknown.  In the play Catherine dreams of a marriage between herself and IZ taking place in the grounds of her fathers vicarage,her father marrying them and soft petals falling from  the cherry tree above. 

The use of ,”Mam,” a northern name for mother, is the name given to  Catherine Morelands mother. Catherine speaks with a northern dialect, probably a Bolton accent, north of Manchester  as do her mother and father.  Isabella Thorpe and John Thorpe speak with more received pronunciation. The English aristocracy, of which Jane Austen writes a lot in her novels,we always  imagine, from the films, speak with received pronunciation. But are we sure in the 18th century that they all spoke with  received pronunciation? Did some of the aristocracy speak with regional accents? Why shouldn’t Austen’s characters speak with a regional accent? 

In this version of Northanger Abbey the village ,CATH comes from is not  Fullerton a southern Wiltshire village near Salisbury as it is in the novel. It is a northern village hence her northern accent. I wondered why? This play is having its world premier here in the South at The Orange Tree Theater in Richmnd upon Thames, which is a wealthy upper class sort of place. However from Richmond the play will travel to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in North Yorkshire, The Theatre by The lake in Cumbria in The Lake District ( very beautiful too I must add) and the Octagon Theatre in Bolton. All, apart from The Orange Tree, are in the north of England. Zoe Cooper has written the script to make people feel at home, ‘up north.’ as much as ‘down south.’The emaphasise on the north in the play  creates an awareness of the north south divide in the Untied Kingdom. Often the so called divide  is seen as a joke but economically it is a real thing. That north south divide would have been there in Austens’ time. Industry happened ,”up north.”Spending the wealth derived from the industries happened,”down south.”

Is Catherine the writer of this novel? Is Catherine Moreland  Jane Austen? She actually says at one point. “I am the writer.” And the ending of the play suggests so too.We can discern this near the start of the play when the Allans bring Catherine  to Bath. The carriage ride is an adventure full of dangers and  highwaywomen ( already Cath’s inner life is emerging,excited by a dangerous woman). Of course none of this actually happens. The Allens are a little spooked by Catheirnes wild imagination. Remember Emma Woodhouse,  who thinks she can direct relationships between people. Has Catherine Moreland  achieved it in the fictional /reality of her mind?  

CATH makes her drab life in a drab country village with ordinary boring parents exciting through her reading and imagination.You wonder what Jane Austen’s life as a spinster would have been if she hadn’t written novels.A pretty drab colourless sort of life I think.I am reminded of Harriet Benn, the impoverished vicars daughter who lived in Chawton  near the Austens and Austen often mentions in her letters. And the question arises, what did women do about their sexuality if they didn’t marry in the 18th century? Is it possible for a human  to cut themselves off from being a sexual person, from being themselves? Of course not. Can we expect that of Jane Austen or Catherine Moreland?. If they didn’t find the right man because the right man was not out there for them what close relationships did they have? What type of relationship did they prefer? Do all of Jane Austens heroines need and want a happy ending? Is marriage really the happy ending? I often shudder at what happened to Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice.

Zoe cooper has chosen her words very  carefully and creates maximum impact, sometimes in a humorous way but always she makes us reflect.Towards the end of the play John Thorpe and Cath are at a ball.CATH has tried everything to deflect John Thorpes attentions . He on the other hand takes ,no, for a ,yes. He  thinks she is playing hard to get. 

HEN/JOHN THORPE: Still never mind,we are here now. Despite your games! Or perhaps because of them. Dancing together!

CATH:I am not dancing with anyone. I am dancing near many people. That is the custom for country dancing is it not?... Our dancing is polymorphous.

HEN/ JOHN THORPE: Polymorphous! Polyamorous! Poo Poo.I consider the country dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity to one man and complaisance to him are the principle duties of both…”

This is a little out of the blue.Polymorphous is understandable, but  where did  polyamorous come from?This throws a whole new light on to the play. Sexual fluidity, different sexual orientations, have all been explored but the idea of polyamorous makes us think again. Who? where? what? Quite something for John Thorpe to come up with at this juncture.

I have begun to think Northanger Abbey is a sort of shadow autobiography of Jane Austen written by Austen but through the mind of Catherine Moreland? We can map the events and characterisations in the play on to Austens life. The men Austen knew and had those truncated relationships with. Did she really want to marry a man? She had strong life long friendships with  females. Like CATH she had  brothers and lived mostly a country life apart from her sojourn in Bath of course. It is worth thinking about. This play certainly makes you wonder.  

There is a two part ending to the play.We have the bit where Cath has been returmed home in a sudden abrupt manner by General Tilney because he believes she is poor and certainly not the heiress he thought she was. Henry turns up at Caths village soon after. He is mortified by his fathers actions and asks her father for her hand in marriage. He wants to do his duty which of course should not be mistaken for love.  CATH has discovered herself. She knows her true love is IZ. Henry himself perhaps has to learn his true nature yet. 

“CATH: No.We.That is not…

Because I did betray you,Henry. And it is..

That would not have been enough for me anyway. And it must not be enough for you either.

IZ/HEN…And I don’t expect that you and I shall ever see each other again.

An epilogue occurs. 

HEN: And some years later…

CATH , when visiting a shop sees a female figure examining a new volume. It just happens to be this play script. When she turns it is IZ. IZ has discovered herself in this volume. CATH recalls being under the cherry tree at the start of this story in her garden at home ,”where I started to write.”

So, no traditional happy ending but a reflective ending.

The play is acted strongly by the three very good actors. Sam Newton and Rebecca Banatvala both trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. AK Golding trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.They are very believable in their fluidly changing roles. 

Zoe Cooper plays with words adding meaning and depth. After her first menstrual period enacted during Act One Scene 3 while playing rough games with her brother Nigel, specifically re-enacting Boewulf  Nigel goads his sister telling her ,

” Real life women cannot have any  sorts of adventures and must only be sensible …and subservient.” 

Nigel repeats the word, subservient, making much of it, he having recently read it in Dr Johnsons Dictionary. 

It is a  word that describes the plight of women in the 18th century. Something that Austen in her novels shows women struggling with and sometimes overcoming or at least finding ways to manage. When she first arrives in Bath with the Allens she is pronounced ready for ,”balls.” Even I had to stifle a giggle.There is of course the mysogenistic soldiers encounterd by IZ and CATH on Milsom Street who play with the word ,”cunt-ry.”

Austen herself did not like the name Richard. She had a aversion to the various King Richards in medieval history. She says as much in her own youth when she wrote,”The History of England.” CATH’s father is called Richard to CATH’s mortification. Play on words and word jokes pepper the play. Austen would have loved it. 

Online video of the play: 


The Orange Tree Theatre:




  1. What a review, Tony! So comprehensive. Your knowledge of the history and geography of England add the nuances that I, as an American, would have missed. Also, it is obvious that you are a teacher. I love your unique perspective of Austen and her novels and life. I might not agree with your thoughts at times, but you make me think and I often debate you in silence. Kudos. And thank you for the link to the play.

  2. Vic said it well, Tony. A wonderfully written review with added nuances, "love your unique perspective," "might not agree ... but you make me think and I often debate you in silence." I had slightly different words in mind for my comment, but then I saw that Vic had already said it for me. This is not a play for me. I prefer the original. Despite the skills and talents of the writer and the cast, I would not have had a pleasant evening, would have been one of those women you wondered what they made of a male actor portraying child birth. I would have been thinking the whole time, I could be home right now comfy and cozy reading a good book!

    1. I am not sure that it woud have been that unpleasant for you Jean, but ayway. Zoe Cooper is making the point that the world, art, literature, society as a whole, can been interpretted from a much wider, realistic context.