Saturday, 28 May 2011

Theatre Review: Haunting Julia (Riverside Studios)

Inspired initially by Stephen Mallatratt’s phenomenally successful stage adaptation of The Woman in Black, Alan Ayckbourn’s ghost story Haunting Julia premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1994, where it has subsequently been performed on two other occasions (in 1999 and 2008). The play has now been revived by Andrew Hall for the Lichfield Garrick and is currently at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. Haunting Julia is recognised as a departure from Ayckbourn’s signature style of social comedy, and this production arrives with reports that audience members at the Garrick have been collapsing and fainting from shock due to the intensity of the piece. Such reports are rather surprising, for what the play looks like here is simply a mildly diverting trifle on supernatural themes that never really generates enough tension or suspense.

Dubbed “Little Miss Mozart” by the media, the Julia of the title was a musical prodigy who committed suicide 12 years before the events of the play. Her father Bob has turned the student residence where she lived into a shrine-cum-heritage-museum, as part of the Julia Lukin Music Centre. Still convinced that there are unanswered questions about his daughter’s death, and having come to believe that her ghost is haunting the Centre, Bob has invited Andy, Julia’s former boyfriend, to the venue. Here he confronts him with a psychic, Ken, who he believes can provide the answers he requires. The drama focuses on the interactions of the three men, and the different ways in which they are haunted by Julia’s presence.

It’s an intriguing enough set-up, but one that doesn’t develop as successfully as you might hope. Ultimately, though, the fault isn’t so much with Hall’s production, which is efficient in all departments and very well-acted, as with the play itself, which is weak and sometimes painfully contrived. The plotting lacks urgency and the big themes which the piece engages with - grief, parental possessiveness, the challenges of genius - are more interesting than anything Ayckbourn does with them. The playwright seems unable to work up the requisite sense of suggestiveness or mystery here, and his continual recourse to comedy dissipates the tension - though look out for a rather neat gag involving a teddy bear called Emily. In addition, despite some decent effects, an attempt at a grand, melodramatic, emotional climax falls flat. The piece suffers, finally, from Ayckbourn’s tendency to bland things out, so that what we are left with offers neither the fun of a trashy ghost story nor the lingering resonance of an effective psychological thriller.

The production’s greatest asset is its three performances. As the bluff Yorkshireman Joe, Christopher Timothy is expert as he slowly reveals the extent of the character’s possessiveness. Dominic Hecht brings some distinctive touches to the familiar role of the sceptic, and Richard O’Callaghan is simply delightful as Ken. The actors play off each other with consummate skill and ease, holding the attention even when Ayckbourn’s dialogue is at its most pedestrian and exposition-heavy. The performers are the best reason to see the production, and are responsible for the modicum of interest that Haunting Julia manages to sustain. But those expecting a truly terrifying experience here are likely to feel short-changed.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

The production runs for 2 hours 10 mins and is booking until 3 July. Further information here.

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