I’m not normally such a terrific WUSS, but the night I watched Haunting Julia, I could barely sleep after I convinced myself that my house had been possessed by some kind of spirit or something (I’m SURE I saw flickering lights on the staircase).
Alan Ayckbourn – who’s far better known for his chirpy, up-beat comedies than his portrayals of grief and desperate obsession – wrote the play in 1994.
From the moment the curtain lifts, the scene is set: we’re in some kind of museum-style set-up, with a voiceover playing: a young girl is on tape talking about the room, which, it turns out was her bedroom whilst she was at college. It’s only as she gets to the end of her speech that she reveals that it was there, in that very room, that she killed herself.
The effect is chilling, and it’s here that things start to become very uncomfortable.
The room belonged to Julia Lukin, and she was considered to be a modern-day Mozart before her death twelve years earlier. Her father, the recently-widowed Joe (Duncan Preston), has set up the Julia Lukin Music Centre as a tribute to her memory. Her ex-boyfriend, Andy (Joe McFadden), has come to visit Joe, and is chilled by the museum – and things become even more sinister when mysterious noises and a visit from good-natured psychic Ken (Richard O’Callaghan) result in a particularly horrifying sequence of events.
This is good, old-fashioned suspense: Ayckbourn builds up the story slowly, adding in gradual layers as the characters reveal the secrets that they’ve carried with them since Julia’s suicide, as well as how much (or little) they knew about her and their own paranoias and fears. There are about thirty seconds in the play that will make you genuinely gasp with horror: the rest of the time, you’re uncomfortably aware that you’re waiting for something to happen – suspense at its most terrifying.
While it is excellently chilling, the plot is a little vague. The idea that Julia is ‘put to peace’ by the end is a little frustrating, and the play’s ending is neither uplifting nor question-answering. Much of the action revolves around the three main characters, an unlikely triad of Julia’s father, ex-boyfriend and college caretaker; and despite Julia being such a focal character, the creepy Music Centre and the play’s one setting (her bedroom) fail to really tell us much about her other than that she was a tortured genius.
The production itself, however, is faultless – and anything that can still make me break out in goosebumps a week later has to be worth seeing.
Click here for full tour date listings (it’ll be in Malvern for Halloween!) and to find out more.