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.