• Cyphers Theatre Company

Why Northanger Abbey?

“They’re faulty, naïve, sexist, problematic humans.”

Writer Katherine Rigg talks about why and how she adapted Northanger Abbey.

I love Jane Austen. Which may have you thinking I’m a middle-aged woman whose hobbies also include National Trust volunteering and collecting crochet bunnies. I’m not. But I’m only 25 so fingers crossed I might get there…

The reason I love Jane Austen, to be honest, is a lot more peculiar. When I was in my preteens, my mum used to read me her novels and make catty noises / gestures at all the narrator’s sarcastic comments.

It might help to explain here that I lost a lot of school to ill health, so my education was carved out by my mother (I’d have spent the time re-watching the extended editions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings).

A fierce feminist and teacher, my mum armed herself with Jane Austen to get me interested in reading. She presented her as a female writer who was critical of everything. Fashion, politics, other authors (male and female), social conventions, rich white women stealing other cultures’ fashions – Jane Austen used her writing to argue with them all. From her living room. Bizarrely, whilst also smiling at them and getting them to like her (apparently this is called Satire).

Who wouldn’t get on board with a woman like that?


Toby Vaughan, Helen Raynham, Marcus Bazley and Abigail Morgan in Katherine Rigg’s adaptation of Northanger Abbey.

Sadly, she’s now mostly associated with Colin Firth dripping on the grass. But what’s special about Austen’s writing is that it gave her, and subsequently loads of other people – of both genders – caught in passive situations, the power of escaping somewhere else.

Take Catherine Morland – she’s average, and by the age of 17 her home is just boring. The only thing she finds interesting are fantasy stories and pop culture. She consumes so much of them that they’ve set the bar for real life. Going on holiday therefore means ‘the opportunity to be Discovered’ (or at least for life to change irrevocably for the better). Any minute the adventure she deserves will kick off and she’ll be rescued from this dull reality…

This is the start of Northanger Abbey. This is also the girl who lives down the street. Anyone who’s ever grown up thinking they’re special and scared they’re not. It’s the kind of story that just endures.

So (thanks mum) I really felt the need to tell it. But obviously it’s personal and exposing to put something you care about on stage. An ask for feedback might be met with blank apathy. A review might be bad, go online and live there For Ever. Thankfully, the Cyphers rehearsal room is warm (metaphorically, not literally – we are struggling artists) and the humour in there kills all panic.

I came in with a starting point script – chapters roughly adapted into scenes and a few new ideas. Everything from there has been made by an ensemble. By which I don’t just mean that the actors let me steal their lines when they were better than what I wrote. Together with the director, we worked towards staging the novel with a pace that feels modern and presenting the characters without sentimentality. They’re faulty, naïve, sexist, problematic humans.

I can’t force you to come to see the results. Jane Austen is not everyone’s cup of tea and no doubt there’s a play about Brexit on somewhere down the road. If I explain our Northanger Abbey is funny, fast-paced, high-energy, cross-dressing, silly and above all the chance to go somewhere away from the now and here – well, hopefully, you might be persuaded you’ll have a fun night.

If you want the deep stuff, it’s also a story about how we cope with our parents when we grow up, about how far our imaginations can pull us away from our reality, and about how we assert our independence. I truly believe there’s something in that for everyone.

If not, I also snuck the Lord of the Rings soundtrack into the pre-set.


KATHERINE RIGG is co-Artistic Director of Cyphers and adaptor of Northanger Abbey. Katherine trained at RADA on the multi-disciplinary MA Text and Performance. Prior to this, she studied English at the University of St Andrews. Katherine is creatively mentored by the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, as one of their Tron 100 selected artists. She also works for the JMK Trust.

See Katherine’s adaptation of NORTHANGER ABBEY at: LONDON | Pleasance | 7:45pm, 28-29 November 2017 | Tickets

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