A show about a ghost: it’s been done before. There have been ghosts upon the stage since at least as far back as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, first performed in 1609, and possibly going back as far as ancient Greek drama. Haunting Julia dates back to 1994 but even in that relatively short space of time hasn’t aged all that well. Perhaps it is because there’s more of an awareness these days about loneliness and depression, and the detrimental impact it can have on people. The ‘Julia’ of the play’s title is not included in the cast list, but being a ghost story, this doesn’t mean she doesn’t make an appearance. Or does she? This is the central mind game of the play.
Whatever one’s level of cynicism towards things like hearing (or apparently hearing) the voice of a departed loved one years after they have gone, it is difficult not to have some sympathy with Julia’s father, Joe Lukin (Sam Cox), particularly when he has more than one audio recording of his late daughter’s voice. A talented musician and composer, Julia embarked on a university course, staying in student accommodation, where she met Andy Rollinson (Matthew Spencer), whom she became close friends with. Later in the show Ken Chase (Clive Llewellyn), who once looked after the student house, now some sort of visitor centre dedicated to the memory of Julia Lukin, shows up, invited by Joe, the centre’s proprietor.
What Joe seeks to do is seek some explanation (beyond the post-mortem results) as to why Julia was taken by her own hand. There’s a perfectly plausible long first half as the characters get to know one another before it all kicks off after the interval. The audience’s patience is rewarded, but the exit poll verdict from fellow theatregoers was that the first act could have tighter and pacier. As the show is reliant on the sounds of the supernatural, sound effects are relatively sparse – changes in lighting do not happen either unless directly related to supposed paranormal activity.
This isn’t like most of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays have been over the years: it’s hardly Relatively Speaking, The Norman Conquests or Bedroom Farce, which are, when performed and produced well, hilarious with a capital H, but even here, most of the humour derives from absurdity. It’s not an easy show to do – all of the action is in one set of rooms and there aren’t even flashbacks to put past events in context. A heavy reliance on the dialogue spoken by three very different people from different walks of life is a gamble this production wins – just about.
It is not like the set is completely static throughout, though it is almost out of place to say too much about it here as it would be giving too much away. I wasn’t entirely convinced by what I presume was meant to have been the show’s critical (and most frightening) incident, which happens late on in proceedings. I think I was more startled by the sudden increase in volume from the stage than the actual on-stage events.
Perhaps it would have worked better as a straight-through production, as per Alan Ayckbourn’s original vision for the play. This rather longer version rather reminded me of the rail replacement bus I was on to get to the theatre in Hornchurch on a Saturday night (Canning Town to Barking if you must know) – it knows where it is going but takes ages to get there. Still, there is much to think about in the play, especially about letting go and moving on, the various reasons why it is important to do so – in the fullness of time – and the possible ramifications of continuing to hold on to something, or someone, that is no longer there.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Haunting Julia tells the story of Julia Lukin, a nineteen-year-old musical prodigy who committed suicide twelve years earlier, and how she still haunts the three men closest to her, through both the supernatural and in their memories. This hauntingly tense study of grief and the supernatural is punctuated with trademark wit from Ayckbourn.
Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace
Designer Jess Curtis
Lighting Designer Mark Dymock
Sound Designer Paul Dodgson
Joe Sam Cox
Ken Clive Llewellyn
Andy Matthew Spencer
1 – 17 November
A Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch production
HAUNTING JULIA by Alan Ayckbourn