‘A ghostly tale which delivers so much more than its initial premise’: HAUNTING JULIA – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (Online review)

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It is sometimes possible to get a better perspective on a play through experiencing it as a piece of audio drama rather than seeing it live on stage and I found this to be the case with Haunting Julia by Alan Ayckbourn. Back in 1994 when it was first produced up in Scarborough it took the writer in a different direction as he explored aspects of the life to come as well as of that being lived. Two further plays Snake In The Grass and Life And Beth developed this interest further about how the past influences the present and how our own lives come back to haunt us. All three plays centre on the effects we may have on each other, more specifically our loved ones, more specifically still in the relationships between parents and children.

In Haunting Julia, doting (smothering?) father Joe has lost his daughter 12 years previously when she committed suicide. She was a musical prodigy and the assumption has been that the pressure on her as a talented artist is what caused her to take such drastic action; whatever the reason there has been no sense of closure for the man left behind.

The play takes place in a centre dedicated to her memory – the father’s pet project and a virtual shrine – and where her spirit may (or may not) live on. Joe has contacted a psychic, Ken, to try to achieve greater understanding of his loss and has also summoned her once boyfriend Andy for moral support but without telling him what he is up to.

It is revealed that Ken also has a direct connection to Julia and the three men are all shown, in their own ways, to be haunted by her memory. They are also connected by having hidden agendas, conscious or unconscious, which are gradually exposed during the course of the play. It transpires that they all, in their own way “haunted” the young girl during her lifetime as much as she supposedly haunts then now – the double meaning of the title is made manifest.

Although this is to all intents and purposes a play for three men, Naomi Peterson voices the deceased Julia – or rather she voices an unnamed actress hired to give voice to the young composer’s life via the exhibits in the visitor centre. It is the sound of a balanced quite ordinary young woman, something which is totally at odds with the picture that emerges of someone emotionally estranged from her own family, particularly her father.

Ayckbourn himself plays Joe as a bluff no nonsense Yorkshireman who has failed to let go of the past and is self destructively perpetuating its hold on himself. Using gravelly tones and a lugubrious air we fully get the sense of a man obsessed with the past. Ken is played by Ayckbourn as an apparently chirpy individual who laughs at his own jokes and who sees his “gift” as something anyone can do if only they had a mind to. Generally well meaning, there is something a little eccentric in his demeanour but his apparently boringly ordinary façade covers hidden depths. The third character, Andy, is played by Ayckbourn as a younger man of missed opportunities and deeply sceptical about anything to do with the supernatural.

And if at this point you think I’ve made a muddle over the casting details well, you’d be wrong. Ayckbourn himself does play all three characters continuing the experiment begun earlier this year with Anno Domino where he and his wife, Heather Stoney, played all the parts between them. Ayckbourn differentiates the characters well so that we are always certain which one is speaking though, truth to tell, he is probably more successful with the father and the psychic than the younger ex-boyfriend where a lighter timbre would have been more appropriate. That said it is a remarkable feat and the writer/director of the piece (also, of course, Sir Alan) can be assured that all three performances exactly capture their intentions.

Just as with Anno Domino this piece is a technical tour de force as the sound mix (Paul Stear) brings the voices together and lends new meaning to the phrase “talking to yourself”. Particularly impressive are the sections where voices overlap giving the drama momentum and necessary conflict. Most of the play is short on action anyway so it is not particularly noticeable that the visual dimension is missing. Indeed, the play’s strong dialogue makes the use of this audio medium extremely appropriate and imaginations can run riot as ghostly apparitions punctuate the climax. Having seen the original onstage version of this play I can confidently say that this production worked all the better for inspiring visions rather than showing them directly. As Christmas approaches it is a timely move to issue this ghostly tale which delivers so much more than its initial premise. Congratulations to all involved in producing another winning piece under difficult conditions.

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John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.
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John Chapman on RssJohn Chapman on Twitter
John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.

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