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Haunting Julia

by on 19 November 2022

As the Spirit Moves You

Haunting Julia

by Alan Ayckbourn

The Questors Theatre at Questors Studio, Ealing until 26th November

Review by Vince Francis

Alan Ayckbourn has rightly established himself as one of the country’s leading playwrights, although this is simply one aspect of a long and rich career, whose work generally takes a sideways and acerbic look at various aspects of, typically, middle-class suburban life.  Originally written in 1994 and representing the first part of the 2008 season “Things That Go Bump”, Haunting Julia is a departure from this model in that it is a ‘straight’ piece throughout.  That’s not to say it’s humourless, far from it.  There is plenty of wit and some nice gags in the script and these help to provide some light and shade in what otherwise might become a fairly heavy topic.

The topic in question is death.  The death in question is Julia Lukin, a young, gifted musician and composer who has passed away in circumstances that become clearer as the play unfolds, and the effects of her death on key characters in her life.  Ayckbourn explores both the various stages of the grieving process and beliefs about death, the afterlife, spirit world and invites the audience to keep an open mind.  Never a bad thing. 

The play itself was inspired by a staging of The Woman in Black which premiered in the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1987, where Ayckbourn was then Artistic Director (he held the post between 1972 and 2009).

As director Maria Gebhardt acknowledges in her thoughtful programme notes, “Horror on stage is always a challenge, as theatre isn’t gifted with the same effects that can be used on screen”.  However, along with The Woman in Black and the more recent 2:22, Maria takes full advantage of the facilities and assets to hand to give the audience “a different kind of scare”.  Apart from this aspect, Maria’s direction is equally considered, using movement to keep the audience focussed and, I felt, providing a genuine authenticity in both the characters and their interactions.  The net effect is a feeling of observing real conversations, reflections, and arguments among individuals, thus exploring the themes in a very human way. 

The Studio at Questors lends itself to a single set production such as this and the staging is a straightforward recreation of a room that has been preserved museum style for viewing by the public, together with an “ante-room” area.  This ante-room area also provides access for the audience and the off-stage part has been rigged as an exhibition of the life and works of Julia Lukin, which the arriving audience is invited to enjoy before taking seats.  There’s a neat piece of symbolism in play here, too, which I will leave you to discover for yourselves.

Lighting is used to good effect to create mood and atmosphere, as are sound effects. 

There are, of course, particular limitations and considerations in using a smaller space, one of which is having the audience along the long side of the room, where the staging of the action is, by necessity, biased to one side.  The effect is that some of the audience are viewing the play partly “side on”, as it were.  In a production like this, where alternative viewpoints are being considered, that might be a good, if not deliberate, thing.  But for some of the audience sitting at the extreme end of the rows, I can imagine a bit of a crick in the neck at the end.  I’m not sure there’s a solution to that, though.

The first character encountered is the guide to the museum, convincingly played by Kaire Olesk.  On entering the auditorium, “Guide” breezily invites you to look at the photos and manuscripts on the walls before taking your seats.  She also does the standard announcements and then melts seamlessly back into the action in mime.

Julia’s father, Joe, is roundly represented by Andrew Hill.  Joe is a depressingly familiar overbearing character, incapable of seeing alternative viewpoints and with little self-awareness.  His love for Julia is unquestionable, but his denial of the facts of Julia’s passing prompts a form of obsessional behaviour.  Andrew’s portrayal is admirably authentic.

Guy Jack gives a very nicely tuned performance as Andy, a pragmatic realist and rationalist, who had given up on his attempts at a relationship with Julia.  Andy and Joe cross swords repeatedly and their exchanges have an edgy realism.

Omar Aga gives a very fine performance as Ken.  Initially presenting as a psychic of sorts – not a medium, as he is at pains to explain – a more pedestrian reality is revealed, although his belief in the spirit world is never in doubt.  It is Ken who raises the questions and offers potential models to explain the goings on.  Omar has a natural stage presence and his characterisation, attention to detail and timing were, for me, spot on.  Having said that, I would have to add that I needed to suspend disbelief to another degree to accept that this Ken was old enough to have had young children twelve years prior, as the script dictates.

Appearances of Julia bookend the play and are offered by Ruby Barry who has no trouble in establishing strong image immediately on both entries.  Julia is, or was, disturbed by her talent and insecure in herself and, as I say, Ruby sets that out with no messing.

Nice to see Bat-Bear getting a nod in the programme, too, playing the difficult “always on in the background” part of Emily.  An example to all aspiring actors of the power of inner stillness.

Questors’ productions are always worth a look, and this is no exception.  The chance to stage an unusual piece of writing by an established author is a bit of a “gimme” for any theatre company and has been grasped fully by this production. Cut along if you can.

Vince Francis, November 2022

Photography by Robert Vass

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