THEATRE: Northanger Abbey, Greenwich Theatre, London

Cloaked villains and masked intriguers point up the funny side to Matthew Francis's adaptation of Jane Austen's Gothic satire.
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Poor Jane Austen. She should have died hereafter. That way she could have lived to collaborate with Andrew Lloyd Webber and really cleaned up. Not so fanciful a notion as you might imagine. Long before Alison Steadman hooted her way through the BBC Pride and Prejudice, Hermione Gingold was, by all accounts, a redoubtable Mrs Bennet in the 1959 Broadway musical First Impressions. The show was originally entitled A Perfect Evening, and having heard the score, I can attest to the wisdom of the name change.

Only someone lately returned from a year spent trekking in the Himalayas could fail to have noticed that Jane Austen is box-office dynamite. Finding Northanger Abbey on stage, therefore, is not exactly cause for smelling salts. The surprise is how well it works. Certain recent adaptations have succeeded in little but reminding audiences that a cramped theatre seat is not the most comfortable way to discover a novel. Director and adapter Matthew Francis repeats his winning formula by remaining faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of the original, replacing the private contemplation of narrative with something more public and dramatic.

As the hero, Henry Tilney, remarks: "The person who has not the pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid." When the wonderfully wide- eyed and artless Sarah-Jane Holm as innocent Catherine forsakes her Wiltshire village for the pleasures and perils of Bath, she cannot leave behind the Gothic Romances which people her fevered imagination. Consequently, looming branches and a huge black veil dominate Lez Brotherston's spare and evocative set, and in addition to fleshing out the characters, members of the cast also lurk wittily about the stage playing the cloaked villains and masked intriguers of our heroine's dreams. This simple device not only dramatises Austen's comic satire of the Gothic novel, but is also a deft theatrical answer to the basic problem of authorial tone which bedevils any adaptation.

Francis also uses Catherine to narrate, giving further room for comedy by retaining Austen's ironic detachment from her heroine's pleasures and plight. These difficulties overcome, he neatly compresses the action and spins the scenes along in agreeable fashion, aided and abetted by a cast who are clearly, as it were, having a ball. Rebecca Saire is all vanity and dissembling eyes as fashionable, faithless Isabella, while Karen Lewis brings a simple intensity to lonely Eleanor. James Wallace is fine and upstanding as Henry, exuding confidence and gravitas as not only a man of principle, but someone who knows suspiciously more than is strictly necessary about the cost and care of a muslin gown and worships the memory of his mother.

At one point, Catherine's heart is said to dilate with pleasure. By the end of this infectiously enjoyable evening, you'd have to be pretty stony- hearted not to admit to a similar expression of delight.

To 17 Aug. Booking 0181-858 7755