The playwright’s name may be drawing the crowds, but Haunting Julia, is not one of Ayckbourn’s typical plays. A psychological ghost story that focuses on the death of 19 year old musical genius, Julia and her father’s inability, 12 years on, to let her go – she appears as a ghost for everyone to see and hear. While the play doesn’t appear to have a point, Ayckbourn’s writing and Andrew Hall’s direction of the three male actors succeed in setting up an atmosphere of tension in which the audience feel uneasy and disturbed. However, Ayckbourn does demonstrate the effect of death in situations of perfect parental love. Death distorts relationships; in this case, it makes the audience question the quality of fatherhood and marriage, but most of all, Haunting Julia, is all about creating excitement in the theatre, showing how it can be as nerve wrenching as film and television. In fact, the possibility of a live actor coming through a doorway is scarier than seeing it through a television.
What Ayckbourn does best is present ordinary people in extraordinary situations and Haunting Julia is no exception. Duncan Preston plays Joe Lukin, father of the deceased Julia. Preston shifts subtly between moods of anger, sadness and despair, without forcing any extreme shift. Instead he takes the character on a very emotionally natural journey through the pain of grief. Since her suicide, he has set up her student room and house as a museum, in memory of her musical achievements. Two thirds of the stage is taken up by the bedroom that she overdosed in, although items have been replaced, due to theft. To the left of the stage is a blue rope, separating the bedroom from a viewing area which leads off in to the rest of the house. This strong division in the set was heightened by the description of differing temperatures between the two areas. Once crossing the rope from the viewing area to the bedroom, the characters are hit by the cold and a sense of unhappiness, invoking the presence of Julia or at least in spirit form. Richard O’Callaghan’s performance as Ken Chase is real and gritty and he has a knack of transforming moments of tension and horror into comedy. His raspy laugh builds apprehension. Meanwhile, Joe McFadden’s character, Andy Rollinson, finds it hard to trust either of the men he is with, making him suspect in the eyes of the audience. The eerie voice of Louise Kempton as the departed Julia floats from the tape machine around the theatre while snippets of her piano playing help set the ghostly atmosphere.
The blend of tragedy and comedy works particularly well. After periods of building anxiety levels, a character would deliver a quip that would instantly relieve the audience. This certainly was entertaining but I felt at times that the production could have committed to the horror slightly more; instead, it never really reached a particularly powerful climax.
Haunting Julia is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 29th September. For more information and tickets, see the Richmond Theatre website.