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Haunting Julia (October 2010)

Be prepared to be scared


Julia does her job splendidly sending a chill around the audience in Alan Ayckbourn's celebrated ghost story which relies as much on imagination as the minimal special effects to make hairs rise on necks.
Tragic teenager Julia was a child prodigy, Little Miss Mozart as the red tops dubbed her, until she committed suicide at the age of 19.
HJHer overbearing father Joe (Christopher Timothy), has turned her old student digs into the Julia Lukin Music Centre, an uncomfortable mix of museum and arts centre with her bedroom the centre point of what has become a shrine.
Joe had never believed his daughter could have killed herself, to him there had to be another explanation. So one Sunday afternoon he takes Julia's ex-boyfriend Andy, (Dominic Hecht), to visit the centre and then introduces what he hopes will be the key to the truth, psychic mortuary attendant Ken (Richard O'Callaghan).
To Joe this is a chance to find out what really happened, to let Julia explain it to them through Ken, until that is Ken proves to be a phoney, or then again maybe he's not.
As the afternoon drifts on each character reveals a different relationship with a different Julia and secrets about both her life and ultimately her death.
Timothy makes his Joe overpowering and unreasonable, shouting down and prodding his finger at any argument or dissension, yet here is a man, self-made and proud of it, who can change emotions at the drop of a sentence. He is not the sort of bloke you can really like or take to but you can find some sympathy for a man who cannot come to terms with the death of a daughter.
Hecht's music teacher ex-boyfriend is hardly the loving son-in-law that was denied Joe by Julia's death.
The pair have a common link with the past but are hardly bosom buddies. Andy is aloof and distant and doesn't really want to know what happened, perhaps because the only real secret is the one he has been keeping and would prefer not to be revealed. He just wants to get back to his wife Kay and two kids.
Then there is Ken and his psychic powers, not a medium, a psychic he tells us. There is a difference.HJ Ken is full of homespun advice from his father and nuggets of what might even pass for wisdom in some parts. While Joe wears his success despite his lack of education as a badge of honour Ken accepts he is not as sophisticated or educated as other people, even admitting Julia's classical pieces that marked her out as a genius were not his family's sort of music.
Three very different characters tied together by a common thread exploring the web which surrounds them.
In the intimacy of The Studio the audience is also part of that web, sitting with Joe, Andy and Ken in Julia's bedroom so that when they finally learn the truth you are in there for the white knuckle ride with them.
Hitchcock's Psycho proved you needed very little to scare people witless, just a suggestive script, some believable acting, a bit of atmosphere and an audience with imagination and Haunting Julia uses those same simple ground rules to considerable effect. A bright light, a bit of breeze, a drop of blood and rely on the mind to fill in the gaps. Which it does quite scarily, thank you.
Not that it is all screams and ghosts mind. For those used to Ayckbourn's comedies set in the middle class marriages of the suburbs this all might come as a bit of a shock, but then again, remember, that is what it is meant to do, not much use having a ghost story that has them rolling in the aisles but he has not deserted comedy entirely.
Among the psychological delvings are some very funny lines.
The Lichfield Garrick Rep is getting quite a reputation for its productions and this is the third directed by Andrew Hall, who is co-producing this one with his own company Solomon Point.
He was also responsible for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Entertainer.
Hall manages to keep things simple for the audience to follow helped by a superb, strong cast who provide sharply contrasting characters who all have a different view of the same event. The excellent set is by John Brooking while Liz Porrett was responsible for the effective lighting. Julia will be scaring until 30-10-10.

By Phil Preece

For some reason theHJ supernatural's been out of fashion in drama recently, most likely simply owing to a shortage of good plays in the genre. The Garrick Rep company and director Andrew Hall however have been clever enough to unearth this little gem from Alan Ayckbourn's extensive back catalogue. The result is an intriguing mix of speculation, ambiguity and one final genuinely chilling moment during which I defy anyone not to feel their hair actually starting to lift.
Stage and small screen star Christopher Timothy (All Creatures Great and Small and just about everything else) is particularly effective in the unsympathetic part of bluff Yorkshireman Joe whose gifted daughter Julia died twelve years ago in a tragic suicide. Unable to let go, Joe has built a shrine to her based on the student room in which she died, now part of a complex dedicated to encouraging other young musicians.
Dominic Hecht charms as Julia's one-time boyfriend the well-grounded Andy who was the last friend to see Julia alive. Decoyed by Joe to the spooky museum of Julia's student room, kept pristine in her memory, both Andy and the audience begin to wonder just why Joe cannot move on, and whether the psychic phenomena he claims to hear are real or part of some worrying delusion.
The entrance of psychic Ken, (a marvellous performance by classical actor Richard O'Callaghan) encourages the view that Joe's not the only one who's cracked. But thHJere's a twist in the tale, and some very human emotions to be laid bare before the explosive end.
The play is both under- and over-written, wordy while only hinting at themes and ideas that stay undeveloped. These may be all the more potent through leaving scope for our imagination. All truly satisfying tales of the supernatural are illogical and unexplained, defy cold logic and sane reason. But still I'm left with the feeling that somehow Ayckbourn has censored his own creation back to cosiness, bowdlerising a plot which by encouraging speculation hints at the horrors of incest, abortion and Fred West, while remaining ephemeral.
Overall Haunting Julia keeps the audience guessing, has excellent performances and one true moment of genuine horror. The production runs until October 30th. I know the run is almost sold out but do try for tickets on 01543 412121 or go online at


Click here to book tickets for the Spring 2011 performances of Haunting Julia.