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Haunting Julia

Alan Ayckbourn
Hall and Childs Limited
Riverside Studios
(2011)

Haunting Julia publicity photo

Haunting Julia has probably the one of best stagings’ for a ghost story: a bedroom turned into an exhibit. Julia’s old bedroom dominates the stage with its neat furnishings, fantasy posters and paper strewn desk, bordered on the left by a rope barrier and a tight stretch of depersonalised museum corridor. This scene combines from the start an eerie sense of stifling un-death, of haunting memories as well as a certain theatricality, always good when handling horror.

Unfortunately, the action of the play never quite lives up to the expectations set by the stage: Haunting Julia, for all its ambition of emotional depth, entirely lacks tension.

The action focuses on the attempts of Julia’s father, Joe, to answer all the lingering questions surrounding his daughter’s death 12 years ago. The official report is that Julia, genius composer known as ‘Little Miss Mozart’, committed suicide but Joe believes there is more to the matter. He enlists the help of her old boyfriend and a psychic to close the matter.

It becomes clear that the play is not really about ghost in the supernatural sense: here it’s the emotional haunting of Joe that takes centre stage, his sense of responsibility and his overbearing love for his daughter. This emotional journey has the potential to be interesting and it’s certainly a more ambitious haunting than simply having things jump out of closets, but it is overwrought with padded scenes going over every excruciating detail killing any possible tension.

With all the sense of a bickering family dinner, each character hectors the others, determined to fulfil their traditional horror story role: the ex as the voice of weak reason; Joe as the man who needs to believe and Ken as the amiable, down to earth psychic. Julia seems an interesting character in herself as the troubled artist plagued by her creativity, but when for two hours the nearest thing to actual supernatural presence is some laughter and a piano being played in the distance, it’s hard to remain intrigued by this haunting.

Haunting Julia’s main problem is that it refuses to leave its good ideas alone. As an example of this: the central point of the stage is a door that, we are told, is now blocked off and used to lead to the rest of Julia's house. Menacingly ajar at first, this foreboding door becomes quickly overworked. Every person on stage reaches for it on the first excuse, so that when the fateful moment finally occurs, subtly announced with a spotlight on the door, there’s nothing to fear.

Despite this over-attention to detail, the characterisations are at times conflicting. Julia herself is confusingly presented as being both a loud mouth who gets kicked out of lectures and a quiet girl who can’t talk about her feelings. Joe at one point tells the psychic that he will hear him out though he won’t necessarily believe a word he says, after spending the last 40 minutes heckling everyone who’ll listen that Julia’s spirit is not at rest.

Another question, weakly answered by the play, is why someone who overdoses on pills and alcohol would bleed onto their bed, aside from the need for a theatrical blood stain. We’re told she tried to stuff everything possible into her mouth and ‘bleed out of her mouth and stomach.’ I’d love to see that doctor’s report.

Nonetheless the cast is solid, with Dominic Hecht working well as the evasive ex and Richard O'Callaghan, as the bumbling psychic, is genuinely likeable. Christopher Timothy has a tendency to overact but carries his demanding role as Julia's father well.

Haunting Julia is an ambitious play, attempting to give depth to what can otherwise be a predictable formula. Unfortunately, while knowing where it wants to go it takes too long to get there, losing its audience and any tension along the way.

Reviewer: Tobias Chapple