After Alan Ayckbourn had seen The Woman in Black and the film The Haunting he was inspired to depart from his usual comedic tales of middle class life and try his hand at a ghost story of his own. The result was Haunting Julia, now revived in a delightful production at The Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch.
The plot is simple. The young and prodigious Julia Lukin, known locally as ‘Little Miss Mozart’, though she loathed the comparison, mysteriously committed suicide at the age of nineteen. Twelve years later her widower father, Joe (Sam Cox), having bought neighbouring properties, has turned their home into a museum. He’s made some alterations. A staircase now goes up to a cordoned-off viewing area, a wall of her bedroom having been partially demolished, and access to the landing behind the door she would have used has been bricked up. Still seeking answers to her untimely death he invites the last person to see her alive, her former boyfriend Andy (Matthew Spencer), to see the shrine he has created in her memory. Later they are joined by Ken (Clive Llewellyn), who used to live in another part of the building, and who may or may not have psychic powers but is prepared, nevertheless, to spin that line and genuinely seems to believe that Julia is still around and wants to communicate and maybe even appear. Incrementally evidence mounts in his favour.
The play dates from 1994 when arguably audiences had longer attention spans than today and were happy to sit comfortably for a couple of hours and see a relatively straightforward story unfold in front of them. It’s a wordy piece and with a cast of only three, each has a lot to say. In a rather comforting way it requires a devoted level of concentration to focus on the dialogue and the rationales put forward by the characters; rather like listening to an good audiobook, but in performance. Actors and the production team alike, under the direction of Lucy Pitman-Wallace, have successfully pulled off the challenge of bringing this work enjoyably to life.
The set by Jess Curtis is striking. Although it is no more than a room and landing, it authentically captures the feel of those historic houses where alarm bells will ring if anyone should pass beyond the rope into the hallowed space on the other side. It looks imbalanced or skewed at first, particularly when viewed from the sides of the auditorium, but the delineated spaces and the staircase down to the unseen floor play their own supporting role once the scenes start to unfold. Similarly, sound and lighting in the hands of designers Paul Dodgson and Mark Dymock respectively enhance the set and story, becoming crucial elements in the action.
Casting director Matthew Dewsbury has a found a trinity of contrasting actors who bring their own distinctive attributes to the production. Cox conveys the anxious father, unable to let go of his precious daughter, desperately seeking answers and prepared to listen to anyone who might solve the riddle. Llewellyn provides both comforting commentary and ambiguity along with a towering physical presence. Between the two Spencer brings a rational human dimension from the man who loved her but has moved on, though even he becomes increasingly disturbed as the paranormal progresses. All three create an air suspicion that they might be more closely involved in her death than they are admitting.
As Ayckbourn worked on the script he was drawn increasingly towards creating characters rather than a frightening ghost story and that is where the real interest lies. While things do go bump, although not in the night, as far as we are aware, neither the play nor the production leaves us trembling in our seats, but both make for an intriguingly entertaining evening.