Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
It was a young Jane Austen who wrote this wonderful squib of a novel, and its delight is in the absurdities and agonies of youth: credulous excitement at Gothic-medieval thrillers, a yearning for love and an agonizing propensity to embarrass yourself socially. Catherine Morland is as much a modern schoolgirl – thrilled to find new friends who might have brothers – as she is a Georgian Miss. As for her romantic ideas about abbeys and ruins, replace The Mysteries of Udolpho with the Twilight series or Game of Thrones and she is all around us.
Tim Luscombe, expert at Austen adaptations, understands this beautifully and Karen Simpson’s pared-down, economically elegant production has no qualms about keeping the period dress, for it is no barrier. The young director who recently said that whenever he sees period dress “I know it’s not about me” should go and see this: it absolutely is about all of us, or at least our youth. I hope many, many schools catch it on tour. I would have said “schoolgirls”, but my sixtysomething husband adored it too.
Another good reason to see it is Eva Feiler, emerging from small roles as a star to watch: she gives us a Catherine sweet, worried, thoughtful, foolishly romantic but with a basic solid-gold decency. She is never “off”, in every scene her face betraying the moment’s anguish or hope. Annabelle Terry is a delight, too, as snitty, manipulative Isabella Thorpe – the prototype Rules Girl – and doubles finely as a dim-lit scuttling hag housekeeper in the enactments of Udolpho’s gothic dreams. Joe Parker is an appropriately oafish John Thorpe, the “rattle” whose chatter causes Catherine so much discomfort and damage.
And as for Harry Livingstone’s Tilney he is not only drop-dead gorgeous but featly avoids the peril that stalks all Austen heroes: preachiness. He reproves Catherine for her mad suspicions, indeed, but Luscombe’s adaptation brings the barking General Tilney to the fore (Jonathan Hansler, entertainingly fierce) and we get satisfying indications that he, like his sister, is still recovering from an emotionally cowed childhood. And when he enacts for Catherine’s amusement a description of medieval-Abbey terror in all its “dreadful solemnity” it is glorious.