GHOST stories are as much a part of Christmas as pantomime dames.
What a delight, then, that Alan Ayckbourn is revisiting his 1994 play Haunting Julia in a brand-new audio recording that will feature the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s director emeritus.
Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, 81, who will be playing all three parts in the online version, available exclusively on the SJT website, sjt.uk.com, from December 1 to January 5.
Directed by Ayckbourn, the “comic but scary” Haunting Julia was recorded at his Scarborough home studio, where he and his wife, Heather Stoney, had made his first ever audio play, his 84th premiere Anno Domino, in the first lockdown.
Released by the SJT in May, Ayckbourn’s tale of marital breakdown and toxic politics drew a worldwide audience. “We enjoyed the experience,” says Alan. “I think it went pretty well and the response was good, very positive.
“Although we did jump in at the deep end a bit, as we hadn’t acted on stage for years, Heather even more so than me.
“The only time I would act is when doing a new play and I would act it out at the first reading.”
After the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to this summer’s Ayckbourn’s stage premiere of Truth Will Out, he turned his attention to Anno Domino instead. “That kept my hand in, when the lockdown was announced and we thought, ‘what the hell are we going to do?’,” he recalls.
“My new play was kicked into touch, along with everything else, but then I got the taste for the audio play and we ended up rather enjoying it – though Heather has had enough after one play! So, I thought I’d do my only all-male play.”
Ayckbourn, who played characters ranging in age from teenage to septuagenarian in Anno Domino, will now take the parts of Julia’s father, Joe, her former boyfriend, Andy, and psychic Ken in Haunting Julia, wherein “other voices” – previously off stage – are provided by Naomi Petersen.
Haunting Julia is set 12 years after the suicide of musical prodigy Julia Lukin. Her father Joe, still struggling with her death, meets with her boyfriend and a psychic to seek out the truth, but some questions are better left unanswered.
“Over the years, I have always enjoyed creating off-stage characters almost as much as on-stage ones. They serve to provide, at their simplest, a depth and perspective to an overall stage picture,” says Alan.
“I consider Julia Lukin to be among the most complex and intriguing of my characters never physically to appear. Although a male three-hander, the play definitely belongs to her.”
Haunting Julia was premiered at the SJT in its former home at Westwood in 1994 and its ghostly presence has haunted many theatres since then, not least in two revivals at the SJT.
“I started it as a response to the phenomenal success of The Woman In Black, the most successful play we ever did, thinking ‘oh, there’s gold in them thar hills’.”
Seven years would pass between the SJT premiere of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella and Ayckbourn’s birth of Haunting Julia, his first ghost play, as he strove to settle on a distinctive, winning format.
“You have to build up the audience’s confidence in the story first, and then scare them, which is not that different from a farce, where you’re trying to make them laugh by surprising them,” he says.
“The first thing I discarded was the supernatural. Instead, I wanted to explore these three men, with the girl, Julia, being a very strong off-stage character, having an enormous influence on them.
“I became interested in writing a séance, where the three men see her from different angles, creating her as a hologram where the audience will know her better than the three men.
“It was an exploration that took me on another journey, rather than pursuing the P D James thriller style, but it still has a spooky element to it, though the aim was not to make people jump from horror shocks.”
Dealing with pressure became the driving force of the play. “I wanted to set up a story where the parents had a gifted child and the obvious gift you could give them was a musical talent,” says Alan.
“Children rarely write a novel at three or four, but they do create elemental music, so I wrote about an ordinary couple who gave birth, quite by chance, to a musical prodigy, and then show their bewilderment, yet pride, thinking ‘it’s not our music, we listen to pop music’, whereas she becomes a serious Radio 3 composer.
“Then, because of the mounting pressure that ends her life, it was fascinating for me to explore what that meant to the people left behind. Suicide is tragic and awful, but what about those people left, who ask ‘what did we do wrong?’. The questions they ask themselves are just as awful as the suicide itself.”
Analysing how being gifted, be it musical, sporting or whatever, can be isolating, even to the point of someone contemplating suicide, Alan says: “It’s always interesting reading about people you admire, and you read the section where they say they ‘got so depressed, they felt they were going nowhere’.
“You think, ‘why did they lose confidence in their special gift?’. On the other hand, is it something they don’t quite understand or treat in the way they should? I don’t think I solved that question.”
As with Anno Domino, Alan faced the prospect of recording differing, distinguishable voices for the audio play. “Joe is much older than the other two, and they are all well-defined,” he says. “Joe is a bluff, successful northern businessman; Andy was a contemporary of Julia, being her boyfriend, and his accent is more southern RP [Received Pronunciation].
“Ken, I had to find another voice for, and he comes into my stock range of little men that started with Sidney Hopcroft [a small-time tradesman] in Absurd Person Singular in 1972, so I’ve given Ken my own native Cockney.”
The age range “wasn’t that challenging,” reveals Alan. “I would do Joe in the morning, when my voice was rougher, and Joe and Ken in the afternoon.”
Important to the recording too is Ayckbourn’s prowess with soundscapes, or “sound effects as they used to be called”. “When I do a new play, I always do the soundscapes,” says Alan, who honed his skills when working for five years at the BBC Sound Studios in Leeds.
“For years, back in the Sixties, I was dubbing stuff on reel-to-reel recordings, tapes, then mini-discs. Now it’s all computers and it’s become increasingly sophisticated, where I can mix in all sorts of effects.
“When doing a production at the SJT, the main scenic elements, apart from the set, are sound and lighting, so the soundscapes can be even more crucial to an audio play – though Haunting Julia doesn’t call for huge soundscapes, except at the end.” You will have to listen to find out what that ending involves.
Rather than recording a new work, Alan settled on exhuming Haunting Julia for the SJT’s winter season. “I could see a time-frame, once I’d finished Anno Domino, that if we started another recording, we wouldn’t be finished much before autumn, which would be good for the Christmas programme, and Paul [artistic director Paul Robinson] jumped at it,” he says.
“With the second lockdown now happening, thankfully we got it in the can in good time. It’s opportune timing for a ghost story; I don’t think I could have launched it on Midsummer’s Day, but now, with the light drawing in for winter, if you’re going to tell a story around a fire, then a ghost story is ideal.”
At 81, prolific writer-director Alan is at an age where the greatest care must be taken in the face of Covid-19; likewise, Heather has turned 80.
“I’m still optimistic for the future of theatre, but not so optimistic for myself. We’re in the vulnerable bracket,” he says. “Days of jumping into rehearsals with a lot of actors breathing all over each other is not a good idea, so I’m not going to be doing that.
“The other thing is, how long will I keep going? The only dispiriting feeling is thinking, ‘Are my new plays going to get done?’. There are four or five now. Normally, a play is written and then it’s performed and that’s wonderful encouragement, but for me, until a play is done, has run the gamut of rehearsals, performances, audience response and post-mortem, I’m marking time, but the plays keep coming.”
Tickets for Haunting Julia can be booked any time up to and including January 5 2021, either via https://www.sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia or from the box office, initially by phone only from 10am to noon, Monday to Friday, on 01723 370541 until December 2. Opening times for booking in person will be announced as soon as possible.
Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between December 1 and January 5, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website for more details.