Written, directed and performed by: Alan Ayckbourn
Alan Ayckbourn (with contributions from Naomi Peterson) has recorded an atmospheric audio only version of his 1994 show Haunting Julia, especially for Christmas 2020 and released by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.
The show is set 12 years after 19-year-old musical prodigy Julia Lukin (Peterson) has died by apparent suicide by overdose. It is a meeting between Joe, her father; Andy, her former boyfriend; and Ken, a local psychic (all played by Ayckbourn). Joe has never quite gotten over the loss of his daughter, nor accepted her own hand in her tragic death, and is still searching for a nicely tied up reason. For closure, he instigates a psychic investigation of her student attic bedsit, a frozen shrine to her memory, somewhat bizarrely preserved as part of a memorial music school, open to (and securely alarmed against) tourists. Joe seems insistent on pushing a supernatural element and foul play (touting some spookily distorted tapes, the freezing room and unexplained piano music as examples), while Andy is keen to dismiss it all and carry on with his new life as a husband and father. Ken the psychic might just be on the grift, although he may know more than he is letting on…
Ayckbourn does an admirable job of portraying the three different men, and the smooth mix by Paul Stear could have a listener convinced that they are hearing multiple actors. Ken’s nasal voice is rather grating, and it’s hard to believe Ayckbourn as Andy, a man in his mid-30s, but these characters are balanced by Joe, whose gruff voice is the very reflection of Yorkshire dad. The men’s monologues transpose well to the audio format, especially the representations of a proud but still grieving parent, which is clear even without a visual element.
The show is pitched as a ghost story, although it still very much retains that classic Ayckbourn kitchen sink dramedy feel. The chills are slow in arriving, although this might be due to the audio format. Seeing the characters reacting to the space, each other, and Julia’s apparent presence, coupled with stage lighting and sound, would likely have sped this up. The last five minutes intense scramble of scares would have been even more impactful if the haunted elements were thread through more explicitly (as effective as these minutes are even so!).
Of course, the real horror is not from some insubstantial ghost, but the very real tension of mental health issues and the heavy effect of fame and talent on such young shoulders, coupled with residual guilt, and worry over ones potentially smothering parenting choices. In Ayckbourn’s own words “although the ghost of Julia still haunts the play, it is really about children, their parents, and what the occasionally do to each other and to innocent bystanders – all in the name of love”.
Haunting Julia is a nice little filler while we wait for the theatres to reopen. Dull the main lights, turn on the Christmas lights, and curl up with a mug of something warm for an eye-opening discussion about the nature of grief, talent, and the paranormal.
Recording available HERE until 5th January 2021