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Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey'
Published on Monday, 13 May 2013

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4 stars

Upstairs at Three and Ten (venue website)
11-12 May, 1-2 Jun, 1:00pm-2:15pm
Reviewed by Mathilda Gregory

 Parental Guidance. Under-17's must be accompanied by an adult.

Some people don’t really do puppets. Or don’t really see the appeal of puppets outside knockabout kids’ shows. Puppet aversion, I think, is due to concerns that puppets just aren’t going to be as relatable as human actors, but it’s actually uncanny just how real they can seem in a clever show. It’s magical to realise you are suddenly connecting with a puppet, just as you would a person; the human brain’s eagerness to assume a theory of mind for anything with an approximate face is a wonder.

Not that ‘an approximate face’ is a fair description of this well-designed show, where the beautiful puppets sit elegantly alongside some simple, effective set and costume design. I’d almost call the ingenious cardboard chandeliers ‘steampunk’, if it weren’t for the fact that my grasp on what ‘steampunk’ means is distinctly nebulous. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll simply say that they had a pleasant whiff of ingenious and intricate 19th century engineering about them (via the medium of cardboard).

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s most overtly comic novel, is the story of 18-year-old, gothic-romance-obsessed, heroine-in-waiting Catherine Moreland and her adventures. She joins high society in Bath and, later, visits the titular Abbey, where her obsession with Gothic novels like the Mysteries of the Count Udolpho convince her that sinister doings are afoot. 

A question to ask about a choice like puppets, or any other piece of unconventional staging, is whether this actually adds anything to the story being told. Do the puppets add a layer of meaning that couldn’t have been done with actors? Is the fact that some characters are puppets, being controlled by another person, part of the story? This isn’t quite the case here, although once or twice the staging of Catherine’s wild imaginings in the Abbey did seem even more spooky and self-reflexive because of the puppetry.

Box Tale Soup’s company – consisting of two actors and gang of elegant puppets – rattle satisfyingly through the tale in just over an hour. They condense it so succinctly that I wondered if the story might even work better at this pared-down pace. The puppets and live actors blend perfectly together, giving the cast of two a satisfying and simple way of playing multiple characters and delivering the plot of a complex novel, without losing much of the power of the original. Cleverly, this production also plays up the comedy, resulting in lots of laugh-out-loud moments. This is Austen with a genuine high gag-rate.

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