Noted for his comedic and razor sharp dissections of middle class domesticity, Alan Ayckbourn is one of Britain’s most successful playwrights.
Haunting Julia, which first premiered in 1994, and is now touring the country in this revival by Andrew Hall, marked a departure for him into the realm of the supernatural.
As the author says, while he set out to write a ghost story, his instincts, and interest in people, inevitably led him down the path of placing the psychological centre stage, every bit as much the supernatural.
But it’s the psychological scars of grief and loss displayed by the characters on stage, rather than the ghostly goings on off-stage, that really grip the attention here.
12 years on from the suicide of his musical prodigy daughter Julia, aged just 19, from an overdose, Joe Lukin, (Duncan Preston), has taken the student bedsit in which “little Miss Mozart” met her end, and turned it into museum cum shrine, the Lukin Centre.
One night he invites Julia’s ex- boyfriend, Andy (Heartbeat’s Joe McFadden), and Richard O’Callaghan’s amateur psychic, Ken Chase, to the centre in order to try and work out why Julia should have taken her own life.
With the conventions of the ghost story set in place- weird overdubs of laughter and tears on the shrine’s commentary tapes; the room colder on the side where the bedsit has been reconstructed right down to the finest detail-everything points to the audience being in for a chilling series of things that go bump in the night.
And while of course they duly come, (especially during a climax, that if truth be told could be a lot scarier), Julia’s ghostly presence is not so much the primary focus here, as the three men’s emotional connection to her in a play you can’t help thinking allowed Ayckbourn to exorcise some of his demons in examining the price to be paid for creative talent, and the celebrity it may bring.
Ken, it turns out, used to be janitor of the building, and befriended Julia when she lived there; Andy has his own secret about the day she died; while Joe may not have been quite the loving and devoted dad he has always imagined himself to be.
Hall’s production succeeds in keeping the tension alive during throughout, even when the play’s intermittent comedy threatens to pull the rug from under it. You can also see that the claustrophobic nature of the play would work best in smaller theatres.
Preston is convincing as the ordinary working-class Yorkshireman who struggled to come to terms with producing a musical genius, and now struggles every bit as much as a lonely widower who can’t let go of her memory and move on. McFadden plays the sceptical and detached Andy well, while O’Callaghan’s lisping psychic initially comes across as a caricature, but grows on you as the play develops.
The play hinges on Joe’s desperate belief that Julia’s presence is to be found in the building and his obsessive need to try and contact her. And the audience feels his pain throughout.
But if she is here, (and the tinkling of the ivories behind a brick wall would suggest she definitely is), surely that means her spirit can't be resting in peace. And if not why not?
Could it be that Joe’s refusal to let her go in death, just as his possessiveness when was alive forced her to escape into a wide world she was ill equipped to deal with, is the real haunting going on ? And that it is the conscience of the characters on stage, not the ghost off it, that is really need of exorcism here.
Haunting Julia, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat. Tel: 0131 529 6000