Pros: If you’re a fan of Alan Ayckbourn’s work, this may be an interesting watch.
Cons: Overly long, lack of tension and a weak ensemble make for an uninspiring production.
Musical prodigy Julia commits suicide at age 19. Twelve years later her father Joe (Sam Cox), ex boyfriend Andy (Matthew Spencer), and Ken (Clive Llewellyn), psychic janitor of Julia’s former uni digs, get together in the museum that Joe has made of his child’s musicianship. They are all haunted by her presence and still trying to understand the events that led to her suicide. This is Alan Ayckbourn’s 1994 play Haunting Julia, currently playing in the always lovely Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, and directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace.
Billed as a ghost story and inspired by Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, Haunting Julia has elements of the paranormal, but fails to conjure any ghostly atmosphere. The play seems to straddle a hinterland between realistic and otherwordly, but never quite commits to one or the other. There is some nice use of chilling audio at several points, in moments of apparent haunting, but the first half is so painfully long that what little sense of unease was sparked, peters out in the explaining again and again just who and what Julia was. Going over and over one’s part in events that ended tragically is part of the process of grief, but used here it simply makes for sluggish pacing. Had I been listening to a record I would have assumed it was stuck.
Jess Curtis’s effective stage design is set out as the museum Joe has made of Julia’s life: one half a corridor dominated by a picture of Julia as a child; the other the room she lived in as a student, preserved, with the action occurring mainly in Julia’s bedroom. It takes very, very talented actors to be mainly static on an unchanging stage and remain captivating. The play has to be working hard and the actors have to be working harder. The ensemble have their work cut out, but they simply don’t pull it off. This is due in part to the fact that Haunting Julia feels like a play that isn’t sure what it is and consequently is neither funny nor tragic, neither realistic nor ghostly, and resulted, for me, in neither chills nor sympathy being evoked.
A play comprised of nothing but three people in a room talking is always going to be difficult to stage engagingly. When such plays are done well, they are dazzling; think Yazmina Reza’s God of Carnage. Haunting Julia, though it wrestles with rich topics—grief and loss and analysis of genius—does not manage to provide an engaging two and a half hours.
Author: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Lucy Pitman-Wallace
Designer: Jess Curtis
Booking Link: https://www.queens-theatre.co.uk/whats-on/show/haunting-julia/
Booking until: 17th November 2018