Middle-class farce stops here

Directing a play written by a successful living writer-director is no easy task – but Andrew Hall’s take on Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia is a welcome break from the middle-class farcce mentality that plagues Ayckbourn’s work.

Who saw the latest tour of Relatively Speaking? You know, the one with Felicity Kendal and Kara Tointon, went to Newcastle Theatre Royal. I boycotted it. To be fair, other people who’ve seen this said it was good, but I had a number of issues, the clincher being the way it described itself as “Charmingly English”. “English”, yes, because Ayckbourn’s plays are heavily centred on the unique ability of the English to hold it all in – but “charming”? No Ayckbourn plays are written to be charming. Plenty of plays with tragic undertones masquerading as comedies, but that’s not the same thing. I’ve previously written about Absurd Person Singular and it being nothing like the gentle middle-class farce that Ayckbourn plays are labelled with, especially the early ones, and I stand by those comments. However, there are some later plays of Ayckbourn that most definitely can’t be presented as farces, and one of them is Haunting Julia.

Haunting Julia is actually one of my favourite plays. On the surface, it is a ghost story. Julia Lukin was a brilliant world-famous musician and composer who inexplicably committed suicide aged 19. Twelve years on, her father Joe has set up the Julia Lukin music centre, part music facility, part memorial, and part shrine to his daughter. The key exhibit is Julia’s tiny student room recreated in detail – a room which Joe suspects Julia never fully left. And as it happens, on the day he brings along Andy, an old sort-of boyfriend, and Ken Chase, a psychic, he turns out to be right.

However, the ghost bit of the play is just a headline. The real strength of the play is the back-story of Julia and these three men: Joe, a father overbearingly proud of a musical talent that neither he nor his late wife understood; Andy, hopelessly in love with a girl who seemingly cares for nothing but her compositions; and Ken, actually Julia’s old janitor, who lived in the basement with his family and provided Julia with a refuge where things were almost normal. It is sometimes suggested that Ayckbourn may have heavily based Julia on himself, but since he tends to be guarded about his personal life no-one really knows the answer – it could equally be the tendency for all creative people to shut out friends, family and everything else whilst being creative. But this trait of Julia’s is a vital part of the story. The reason for her death was nothing supernatural, just a tragic outcome of the day Julia tries to open up to the world coinciding with the day the disheartened Andy tells Julia he’s found someone new.

But whilst it’s one of my favourite plays, it’s not an easy one to direct. There is a common view in theatre that the roles of writer and director are completely separate: the writer does the script, and then has nothing to do with production of the play. I think this model is flawed, but it’s most flawed when it’s a play by a writer-director. With writer-directors, there is far more to their work than the script – there is a vision. They will already have an idea in mind for how the play will look on stage whilst the script is being written, and there is no clear distinction between writing and directing. Ayckbourn considers his scripts to be preparatory notes for directing, and if you disregard this and impose your own vision, you are no more faithful to the play than a director who changes the script. This doesn’t mean the director can have no artistic input, but the sacred rule surely has to be: everything about the play that matters must remain the same.

So, how does this production do? Well, before the play had even begun there were three good omens. Firstly, director Andrew Hall had wanted to do this play since 2007, but the Stephen Joseph Theatre were already doing their own revival. He chose to wait, and that is good because it shows he didn’t just want any old Ayckbourn play to meet a farce quota. Secondly, Alan Ayckbourn is a lot more protective of his newer plays than his older ones, so the fact that Hall got permission for a professional revival suggests Ayckbourn himself had confidence in this. And thirdly, the posters do not, thank God, list how many soaps you’ve seen the actors in. One bad omen: there’s an interval, and having seen the SJT’s interval-free production in 2008 I can vouch that the play works far better without the break. However, as interval-free plays are bad for bar takings and Darlington Civic Theatre needs all the money it can get right now, I’ll let them off.

Beyond this, however, there are some noticeable differences between this production and the 2008 SJT revival. (The 2008 revival was actually directed by Richard Derrington, but Ayckbourn is always close by in Scarborough even when he’s not the director.) The biggest difference is that the Ken Chase in this production (Richard O’Callahan) is very different from the Ken Chase portrayed by Ayckbourn. In Ayckbourn’s own production, he talks more like a civil servant than a psychic, but in this play he is a lot more like a effeminate caricature of the sort who might appear on Most Haunted. But this major derivation from Ayckbourn’s vision is actually okay, because the character remains plausible. The thing that matters – his relationship with Julia when she was alive – stays the same.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite hold for Joe (Duncan Preston) and Andy (Joe McFadden). One device Ayckbourn and many other playwrights use in their scripts is the use of punctuation to break sentences, to work in hesitations, awkwardness, changes in trains of thought. But many directors, I suspect, worry that these irregular pauses make it look like the actors haven’t remembered their lines, and instead have them all delivered as confident perfectly-formed speeches. This production, I feel, has gone a little down the route, and consequently some of the subtle touches I noticed in the SJT production were lost. Unlike Ken, where they took a lot of liberties and got away with it, it does matter when you lose the uneasy atmosphere of the first half-hour. Joe is talking about a dead daughter he has never let go, Andy is talking about a girl whose death he was partly responsible for – the lines were constructed this way for a reason, and they missed an opportunity by not picking this reason up.

One other small irritation was the size of the set. Julia is supposed to live in a pokey little attic room, and this was anything but pokey. I know they’ve got a large stage to work on, but when the play calls for a cramped setting – such as the brilliant Journey’s End I saw at Darlington last year – it’s fine to put a small set on a big stage. Other than that, however, I don’t have any complaints. Once the actual conflict between the three men begins, one the first signs of the ghost appear, Andrew Hall broadly gets it right. The gradually rising tension is handled rather well, and the minimal stage effects used for the appearance of Julia’s ghost are pretty much spot on, so credit to the staging team of John Brooking, Matthew Eagland, Tom Hackley and Carl Richards for this. And ultimately it is how the play develops and ends that matters the most.

All in all, Halls and Childs comes close to being as good as the Stephen Joseph Theatre production, but doesn’t quite make it. There again, with Alan Ayckbourn being 1) a highly competent director in his own right; and 2) the man who (obviously) understands his plays better than anyone else; that would be an immensely tall order for anyone. My opinion remains that if you can, try to see Ayckbourn productions done by the Stephen Joseph Company, because they get Ayckbourn plays better than anyone else. But there’s only so many people they can show his plays to, so it’s up to other companies to offer Ayckbourn to the rest of us. Many companies still stick to the Ayckbourn comfort zone, but quite frankly, pigeon-holing Ayckbourn as a writer of suburban farce is like pigeon-holing Ringo Starr as the narrator of Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s refreshing that Hall and Childs have looked beyond this, so I hope this will continue.