I am now of the opinion that the supernatural just doesn’t work on stage. Having endured recently Terror 2010 and Ghost Stories at Southwark Playhouse and The Duke of York’s respectively; a little closer to home, Stage Fright (Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds); and now Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia at the Colchester Mercury, all of which have turned out to be gigglesome rather than chilling, there’s no denying that any attempt to take this well-trodden and successful cinematic genre to the theatre invariably falls flat on its face. Indeed, the only production that seems to buck this trend is the long-running The Woman In Black, now in its 24th year.
The annoying thing about Haunting Julia is that, Ayckbourn’s interminable soliloquies notwithstanding, it has the potential to be something special. However, it fails on just about every level.
Widower Joe Lukin is still mourning daughter Julia’s death, even 12 years after her suicide - so much so that he has bought the boarding house where she died and turned her room into a shrine. Julia Lukin was a musical wunderkind, known colloquially as Little Miss Mozart, and her father cannot come to terms with the loss of his daughter and her prodigious talent. The house has been transformed into a musical centre in her honour, and her room into an interactive exhibition.
Enter Joe (Duncan Preston) and young Andy Rollinson (Joe McFadden). Other than that Andy is an ex-boyfriend of Julia’s, it’s never explained why these two are together - he has now married and has a family of his own. McFadden, who is a solid enough actor with a decent pedigree, spends the entire play wandering about John Brooking’s beautifully observed set looking bemused.
Preston’s lines are barely audible for the first 20 minutes, but it is only with the entrance of would-be psychic Ken Chase, played by Richard O'Callaghan, that the unintentional horror of the piece really sets in. O’Callaghan’s character has stepped straight out of some awful 1970s sitcom and proceeds to mug every line to within an inch of its life, drowning each speech with overblown gestures.
Given the nature of the play, one is desperate not to give away spoilers but, suffice to say, when the spectral and very noisy Julia finally puts in an appearance, it’s more fun house than haunted house, with every conceivable cheesy special effects trick in the toolbox wheeled out. Less would be very much more here; not every manifestation needs to be Elvira Condomine incarnate.
Andrew Hall’s direction seems non-existent as the cast lurches from one contrived scenario to another, growing even more implausible by the minute. Tom Hackley’s sound effects start off credibly enough but deteriorate into predictable and easily ignored background noise.
Thoroughly disappointing and not in the least bit bloodcurdling.