Alan Ayckbourn's ghost story features plenty of chills but suffers from abrupt shifts in tone
Ghosts are back in vogue. All the most successful horror films of the last few years have been supernatural chillers (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister) so it’s no surprise to find there’s been a trickle down to the theatre, leading to this touring revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia. Inspired by the stage version of The Woman in Black (which had a very successful screen adaptation earlier this year) Ayckbourn has written his own version of a ghost story.
Haunting Julia revolves around the suicide of a young piano prodigy at the age of 19. Twelve years after her death her father, Joe (played by Duncan Preston), invites her ex-boyfriend, Andy (Joe McFadden), to visit the room where she died, which serves as a bizarre centrepiece to a music school set up in her honour. It’s a macabre shrine preserved by a man who can’t accept his child’s untimely death. They are joined by Ken (Richard O’Callaghan), a psychic who may know more about Julia than he at first lets on.
The first half feels drawn out but there’s enough intrigue to keep you hooked. Only in the second half does Ayckbourn really start to build the tension as the supernatural starts to make itself felt. Much of the script feels slightly contrived as each member of the cast spouts long tracts of exposition (particularly O’Callaghan as their spirit guide). Preston is excellent as the grief stricken father while McFadden doesn’t really have much to do but look confused and/or suspicious. Ghosts are just a framework for examining themes of guilt and grief but there is a lot of gentle humour, as you would expect from a writer famed for his domestic comedies. It’s often too drolly funny to be truly scary and the sudden shifts in tone don’t always pay off, though admittedly the final ten minutes elicited yelps of fear from some sections of the audience.
Questions still lurk after the final dénouement, many feeling only partially resolved, leaving you not completely satisfied. It’s almost as if Ayckbourn thought: ‘I’ve made them jump, now I can go home.’
Haunting Julia runs at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 13 Oct.