Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Andrew Hall
Reviewer: Nina Hilton
Alan Ayckbourn is one of the most prolific playwrights this country has ever produced, an expert on marrying the comedic and tragic. His characters are often riddled with simmering resentment and he is master of torturously drawing it out over the course of his plays, every ounce of tension is exploited and perfectly timed. So the prospect of a terrifying ghost story by a man that can make something as prosaic as a dinner seating plan tense is almost too much.
Haunting Julia was first performed in 1994. In 2011 it was revived by Andrew Hall at the Lichfield Garrick before transferring to Riverside Studios in London. Its tour of the country is now underway with Duncan Preston as Julia’s father Joe and Richard O’Callaghan as the psychic Ken reprising their rôles and Joe MacFadden joining the cast as Julia’s old boyfriend Andy.
Centring around the mystery of why and exactly how Julia Lukin, a famous musical prodigy, died at 19 years of age, the play unfolds in the dank student flat where Julia died 12 years prior. Joe has now turned the building into a music centre/shrine and Ayckbourn perfectly illustrates the macabre public fascination with celebrity and death. Her teddy bear has been stolen by visitors twice already but it turn out Julia is just as much of a mystery as her death. Neither Joe nor Andy have much of a hold on who she was when alive, she was a haunting presence even then, in possession of a genius that obscured everything else in her life, “like a great cloud in front of the sun”.
But let’s not forget that this play purports to be a chilling ghost story. In the programme, the director Andrew Hall states that during the previous run, “we had to stop the show on occasions when members of the audience actually collapsed”. Quite simply, this is mystifying as to how this could have happened. There are jumps to be had and a sense of eeriness is created but it is done in the most clichéd way. Loud bangs, lights flicker, a chair inexplicably zooms across the floor. This is the stuff of a Chuckle Vision Halloween special with every trick in the book being used. The intrigue is in the three central characters’ conflicting logic and their ephemeral grasp of who Julia really was. This comes too late though and there is far too much time spent on one expositional monologue after another.
Ayckbourne is at the height of his powers when he is exploring the simmering familial or internal tensions of his characters. When the tension moves outside of the characters and into the supernatural it slackens, quickly. There are good moments and Preston’s Joe is a fascinating character as a guilty and questioning father, and curator of Julia’s macabre music centre. He wants the centre to be dramatic and not sentimental which may be a very strange requirement for remembrance, but not for a ghost story about grief. Unfortunately though, the play does not have much of either sentiment or drama.