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Haunting Julia – Derby Theatre

Writer: Alan Ayckbourn

Director: Andrew Hall

Reviewer: Angela Wilson

[rating:4]

This week’s visiting production at Derby Theatre is Haunting Julia by Alan Ayckbourn – and it’s rather different to the type of work normally associated with one of Britain’s most prolific and popular playwrights of the past forty years. We are all familiar with Ayckbourn’s comedies about middle class, suburban attitudes and relationships, but how does he handle what he himself calls “a supernatural love story”?

Julia Lukin, dubbed Little Miss Mozart by the media, was an astonishing musical prodigy, writing symphonies at eight years old. Yet at the age of nineteen she was found dead in her attic room, apparently by suicide. Twelve years later her father Joe is still tormented by unanswered questions. He has turned the house where she lived into the Julia Lukin Centre, and the room where she died is preserved eerily intact. But strange things are happening in this shrine to her memory which may reveal hidden secrets about Julia’s death.

The set recreates a typical student room, somewhat cramped and scruffy, posters on the walls, books and clothes all over the place. This is where Julia lived, studied, composed and died, now part of the “interactive experience” of the Centre with a cordon to keep visitors at a safe distance (although they do still manage to pilfer any mementoes that aren’t firmly fixed in place).

The cast of three give assured performances. Duncan Preston’s Joe conveys the obsessive, controlling nature of a man who never understood his gifted daughter while she was alive, and still cannot come to terms with the manner of her death. As Julia’s former boyfriend Andy, Joe McFadden brings out his initial deep scepticism that there is anything supernatural going on, but gradually reveals that he too has unresolved issues about her suicide. Richard O’Callaghan plays the psychic Ken and avoids caricature despite the pony tail and slightly camp delivery – is he truly in touch with the spirit world, or does he have other motives? As the play unfolds we also build up an engrossing picture of the missing central character, Julia herself. A restless, burning genius for whom her talent was more a curse than a blessing, desperate to escape the suffocating presence of her father, taking respite from music as plain normal Julie who bakes, sews and plays Scrabble, finally realising there is a chance of true happiness and contentment, only to face cruel disappointment.

This is a tricky genre to pitch without tipping over the edge into a kind of schlock horror where every theatrical device is thrown into the mix – but Ayckbourn is a skilled and subtle writer who avoids the pitfalls. The tension builds steadily, with a few sudden shocks on the way but also plenty of humour and clever musical references (the ghostly voice singing If You Were The Only Girl In The World, the sheet music for Greensleeves – alas my love you do me wrong to cast me off discourteously…), and reaches a shocking climax. This is less a pure ghost story, more a psychological drama about loss of a loved one, grief and guilt. Adeptly written and acted, with just the right amount of scary moments and special effects, it won’t give you nightmares but makes a satisfying and entertaining night at the theatre.

Runs until 27th October 2012

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