Review: Haunting Julia – Mercury Theatre, Colchester

One doesn’t normally associate Alan Ayckbourn with horror. The prolific writer, normally more familiar with suburban comedy, has though turned his hand to a chilling thriller. First performed in 1994 and revived in Lichfield and London in 2011, Haunting Julia now stretches its spectral legs on a first ever national tour.

While the territory may be unusual for Ayckbourn, those familiar with his work will find plenty of resonance. The monologues that delve deep into the characters psyche, the plot twists and even the wry humour are all here. While the writing may seem familiar, the plot however is a departure from his norm.

A musical prodigy dies tragically young and 12 years after her death her father has converted her student digs into a museum to her memory. As with all good museums the centre has an interactive audio guide but when disembodied voices start to be heard on the soundtrack it seems that young Julia may not have completely left the scene.

As her father, former boyfriend and a local physic gather in her former room, the possible motive for Julia’s death begin to unravel. Was it suicide or murder or did the pressure of being hailed ‘Little Miss Mozart’ become too much to live with?

We never really get the answers. There’s a feeling here that there is more left unsaid than explained and despite its age there is a feeling that in some way it is an unfinished piece. An exploration of a possible darker departure from his normal cannon but a journey that is never fully completed.

Andrew Hall’s production has great fun in building up the tension, causing the audience a few necessary jumps along the way, but seems somewhat lethargic. Ayckbourn’s exposition to deliver the requisite backstories slows down pace and robs the piece of the chill it needs.

Richard O’Callaghan reprises his role from the 2011 production; his mortuary attendant turned psychic the key to revealing Julia’s troubled past. O’Callaghan’s vocal delivery though can only be described as eccentric and, while it perhaps parodies many celebrity physics, it adds an unnecessary comedic edge to the character that dilutes the darkness. O’Callaghan is joined by two new cast members for the tour and it’s not a wholly successful casting.

Joe McFadden’s Andy, Julia’s former boyfriend, seems suitably spooked by the possibility of the musician’s presence, but again Ayckbourn’s tendency to launch into lengthy exposition makes it hard to fully understand the character.

Duncan Preston seems unsure where to pitch Julia’s devoted, even obsessive, father Joe. Preston veers from emotion to emotion wildly and it’s hard to emotional connect with this man who has lost his daughter, and on some level marketing product. Preston’s portrayal seems overblown in a script where a more subtle, darker edge would pay dividends.

There’s real potential here, and the staging does provide a few scares but overall it all seems somewhat unsatisfactory. We are left with far too many questions about Julia’s death and her relationship with her family and friends and while the bumps and bangs may elicit a few squeals, the whole piece needs to be much darker in tone. Ghost stories are notoriously difficult to pull off on stage and here it’s a case of a minor tremor rather than a full spectral spectacular.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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