Hold on to your seats

First published in What's On

Review – Haunting Julia, at the Festival Theatre, Malvern, from Monday, October 29, to Saturday, November 3, 2012.

IDEALLY, in the week of Hallowen, this is a quite traditional ghost story which packs a punch as well as one or two shocks to shake the audience out of their seats.

Writer Alan Ayckbourn, who says he has long been trying to re-unite comedy and tragedy, describes it as ‘a psychological ghost story’ - which sums it up quite well. And his script does also manage, quite successfully, to weave a touch of humour into what is a tragic story about a musical prodigy who committed suicide at the age of 19.

The usual Ayckbourn take on humanity is as prevalent as ever through his splendid observations of people and their behaviour. Here is a working class dad, Joe Lukin from Yorkshire, convincingly played by Duncan Preston, who wants answers as to why his daughter killed herself. Perhaps to ease his conscience as he could never come to terms with her prodigious talent once it emerged .

Dubbed Little Miss Mozart by the media at the age of six, daughter Julia had the music world at her fingertips only to find the burden of genius, of being such a creative talent, too great a torment.

Having created a museum type shrine to his daughter in the attic bedsit of her old student lodgings, her still grieving father brings together Andy (Joe McFadden), her former boyfriend, and a psychic, Ken (Richard O’Callaghan), one Sunday afternoon to help bring about closure on what happened 12 years ago.

It’s a weighty script which considerably builds the tension and has your imagination in overdrive as Joe wrestles with the past and his difficulty in never fully understanding the genius he and deceased wife Dolly had brought into the world. Andy too has concerns about his involvement in Julia’s past, and even Ken has a speck of guilt about Julia’s untimely death when he was the janitor at the former students’ lodgings.

Ayckbourn cranks up the tension superbly. Julia’s voice is on tape with ghostly laughter and tears in the background, and there’s also a tinkling piano from the other side of a bricked up door... Could it be from ‘the other side’?

Add in more than a little that goes bump in the night as Julia’s ‘presence’ ensures this production has plenty of spirit, and there are moments that truly make you jump.

Duncan Preston, who delighted tv audiences with memorable character roles in the wonderful Dinnerladies (Stan the handyman) and the spoof soap Acorns Antiques, pulls the strings perfectly. Joe McFadden, former star of Heartbeat and Casualty, is the classic sensible foil to Joe’s bewilderment over his daughter’s life and fate, while Richard O’Callaghan’s Ken, who can feel the link with the departed by ‘tuning in’ to certain vibrations, provides a performance which fully adds to the unearthly atmosphere. He provided a character you could warm to and accused one moment of being a charlatan, he quite literally and brilliantly took it on the chin from Joe in one traumatic scene.

It may not be one of Ayckbourn’s most memorable but it’s nevertheless a finely constructed tale, with a good mix of emotions. It’s well acted and – in modern parlance – it can make the claim of being able to put a tick in virtually every box.

AJW

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