ALAN Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia was last mounted by the SJT in 2008 as part of The Things That Go Bump, his farewell season as artistic director that brought out the ghosts lurking in the dark corners of all our minds.
Richard Derrington guest-directed that revival of Ayckbourn’s claustrophic, ever chillier 1994 response to Woman In Black, the SJT hit that went international. This time, in the wake of SJT director emeritus Ayckbourn’s online premiere of his 84th play, Anno Domino, in the first pandemic lockdown, he becomes a triple threat again for Haunting Julia.
Make that quadruple threat, because the Scarborough knight, now 81, is the writer, director, performer and sound designer for his only all-male play…although “other voices” are added to his triptych of roles, courtesy of Naomi Petersen.
Three men, a father, a lover and a medium, are each struggling to fathom why Otley-born classical musical genius Julia Lukin died at only 19, the victim of an accident or maybe suicide, or perhaps murkier, sinister circumstances shrouded in drugs and alcohol.
The day the music died in 1982, her father’s life stopped in its tracks. Twelve years on and no nearer the truth, bewildered, bluff, big-in-industrial-fencing-supplies businessman Joe Lukin has opened the Julia Lukin Centre for Performing Studies in her former attic student digs and two adjoining houses as a tribute to “Little Miss Mozart”.
Joe has made alterations to the building and the actress voicing Julia’s story is too buoyant: symbols of how this caring, but over-bearing West Yorkshireman never quite struck the right note with her, applying stultifying parental pressure as she struggled with a gift that made her sick, its uncontrollable insistence on being let out being “like a great cloud in front of the sun”.
On the recording, Julia’s distressed real voice can be heard, not only by Joe, but also by her close college friend Andy Rollinson, whose ever more apparent discomfort at having to dig up old ground will be brought to the surface by the arrival of Ken Chase, an over-enthusiastic psychic, the Madame Arcati of Haunting Julia. The truth will out, ultimately willingly from Ken, less so from Andy, who goes from distracted awkwardness to confronting his shut-down past.
May your reviewer make a suggestion, dear reader? Despite the play’s afternoon setting, listen to this audio version in the still of the night, in candlelight or by fire light, or even in the dark, curtains drawn, no distractions, maximum concentration, in part to contrast with the collective experience of a theatre audience, in part too to enhance the new format.
The shards of humour, often released as a form of relief from the rising tension in a packed auditorium, are less forthcoming on a solo journey through an audio recording, but the psychological impact of Ayckbourn’s ghost story grows in the loneliness of the socially distanced listener.
Ghost stories are as much a part of Christmas as pantomime dames and carol services, and so whereas the 1994 premiere and subsequent SJT revivals were staged in the summer, this is the perfect time for Haunting Julia to start haunting all over again.
“I consider Julia Lukin to be among the most complex and intriguing of my characters never physically to appear,” Ayckbourn has said. “Although a male three-hander, the play definitely belongs to her.”
Yes, and no. Yes, she possesses the three men, and in turn the listener, but Haunting Julia very definitely belongs to Ayckbourn too, not only as the consummate story-telling writer, but also in now voicing his three troubled protagonists.
Just as it was a pleasure to discover his dormant acting skills, alongside his wife Heather Stoney, in Anno Domino’s tale of marital breakdown and toxic politics, so his trio of accents and characters here is as enjoyable for us as it must have been for Ayckbourn to record in a year when his rehearsal room has had to fall silent.
What’s more, former BBC sound engineer Ayckbourn’s sound design adds hugely to the immersive audio encounter, playing on your imagination’s worst fears, as a ghost tale should.
“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,” said Ayckbourn of his first ghost play. Sure enough, surprise follows surprise here, and Haunting Julia is even better in this re-incarnation.
How to listen to Alan Ayckbourn times three in Haunting Julia:
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 on 01723 370541.
Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between now and January 5, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website, sjt.uk.com, for more details.