Hall & Childs Ltd and Paul Tyrer and Jamie Clark for the Booking Office Ltd in association with Colchester Mercury Theatre
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Tuesday 4th September 2012
Just as it is inaccurate to say that Ayckbourn's best known plays fall neatly into a "comedy" genre - in fact many have a depth of characterisation that makes them darkly tragic, while simultaneously compelling audiences to roll in the aisles - neither can Haunting Julia be labelled as simply a ghost story. Exploring the issues of parental bereavement, childhood fame and teenage suicide, this play contains all of the layers that one might expect from Ayckbourn, contained in a chillingly spooky plot.
This first ever UK tour stars Duncan Preston as Joe Lukin, in a performance conveying the tortuous emotions felt by a father who cannot move on from the loss of his child, as well as a relatively ordinary man who struggled to understand his gifted daughter - a believable portrayal with an engaging stage presence. Richard O'Callaghan plays visiting psychic Ken with energetic verve, but with a performance perhaps edging towards a parody of TV psychics rather than the tension building stranger the plot needs. Never preaching, but steadfast in his beliefs, the character does provide an essential contrast against the pragmatic Andy however, portrayed by Joe McFadden.
A spacious, sturdy set on the face of it, the space becomes clogged with oppressive tension as the play slowly progresses and the lighting shifts, making it seem gradually smaller. Some particularly well executed effects make for a taut and dramatic final climax, despite it seeming a fairly long time coming.
Although our spines were certainly tingling, thoughts were overwhelmingly left considering the issues raised by the character's lives rather than Julia's death - about which more questions are raised than answered. The depiction of how well-meaning but misguided parental love can cause a child so much more harm than good is more frightening than any ghost story. A thought-provoking piece, recognisably Ayckbourn but certainly unusual, it is well worth a look.