Francesca Petrizzo

at 19:14 on 25th May 2013

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Box Tale Soup bring to the Oxfringe a delightful, imaginative and elegant adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’. In the black box of the Old Fire Station, Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne, aided only by prettily crafted cardboard props and a few puppets, stage the witty and ironic tale of Catherine Morland, a young girl who wishes she lived in a Gothic novel. As Catherine goes to Bath and meets charming, witty Henry Tilney, and gets invited to Northanger Abbey for a visit, all her dreams seem to come true…but Gothic, in real life, turns out to be just plain funny.

Christophers and Byrne fill the space with the confidence and grace of the true professionals. They portray Catherine and Henry, but also lend their voices to both puppets and voiceover. The transition is smooth, and frankly, genuinely funny. The simplicity of the stage, with everything fitting into a suitcase and a few effective changes of light, makes the performance all the more compelling: a true feat of storytelling, acting, and very good ideas.

The irony and cleverness of Austen’s language is nicely trimmed into the kind of playful delivery that makes for easy viewing, with well-gauged cuts, and an accent on the original parodying nature of the work that will satisfy readers and non-readers alike. It’s an amazingly spot-on adaptation, but also a very good show in its own right.

I admired the simple, earthy tones of the costumes, the charm of the handmade props, and the unaffected way in which the puppets were introduced into the narration as side characters. The show is effectively brief, a mere hour and a half, and makes for the ideal break from exams and revision. While the public was mostly made of middle-aged people, one wishes more students would go to see it, if only to get a lesson in what minimalist theatre should really be like.

Perfectly written, well-executed, charming in concept, enchanting to watch, ‘Northanger Abbey’ makes for the ideal Trinity play: light but not shallow, worth continuous, sincere laughs, and all-around tremendous fun. Take an hour off and go watch it, because it truly, genuinely deserves it.

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Sophie Baggott

at 10:37 on 26th May 2013

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I have to confess: I signed up to review this play before spotting puppets on the agenda. Not being a huge fan of puppetry, I was slightly deflated and, to put it mildly, my expectations were not set high. So imagine my surprise, just five minutes into this charming performance, at realising that I had been somewhat converted. The vitality of the actors-cum-puppeteers Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne, from start to finish, was a key ingredient in this process. That’s not to say I was fanatical about every moment, but it was undoubtedly an enthralling experience all in all.

The production was visually compelling: the handmade props were endearing in their simplicity, and the material printed with words was a nice touch to the costumes worn by both the humans and puppets. Indeed the best of Austen’s writing was spotlighted through this ambitious performance. A couple of one-liners drew much laughter from the audience - kudos to the duo for delivering the novelist’s wit so effectively. The opening sequence initially perturbed me with the music’s abrupt halt while the actors were still positioning props on the stage. A certain awkwardness reigned for twenty seconds or so, but things soon swung around.

Catherine and Mr Tilney, the main characters, were not communicated via puppets, which came in as the supporting cast. This pair’s first meeting showcased both actors’ considerable talent to a degree that the puppet scenes did not quite convey. Occasionally the puppet-action almost tipped over into being too vigorous, but I certainly warmed to them by the end. The transitions between puppeteering were impressively smooth, and the onstage dynamic felt natural. I feel that the Mrs Allen puppet deserves credit for an understated yet entertaining performance of peering through theatre-glasses. One minor criticism might be made of the two points at which which the actors had their backs to the audience: losing sight of their faces was disorientating, but on the whole the acting was commendable.

A lot was asked of the audience’s imagination at times: the character outline of Catherine Morland (Christophers) at the start felt a bit strained when the description of her “dark lank hair” was accompanied by a gesture towards Christophers’ neat blonde up-do. The blurb’s promise of a chest that will transform into a carriage was also a stretch too far - this ‘transformation’ entailed the actors bouncing up and down then lurching as the carriage braked. On the other hand, the approach to Northanger Abbey was terrifyingly believable: the cloaked vampirish host was a highlight, and Christophers’ scream shook the theatre. Christophers’ acting peaked on her departure from the Abbey - distress was eked in every feature of her face.

The hour ‘and a bit’ flew by. Perhaps the most appealing aspect was the way in which the actors truly seemed to enjoy what they were doing. For those wanting a different theatre experience, this is the one. I was a tough crowd, but I fell for the puppets’ charm. An asset to the Oxford Fringe!

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