In his final summer season as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn shows he has lost none of his gift for programme planning. Things that Go Bump consists of revivals of two Ayckbourn three-handers on the subject of ghosts, followed by a brand new “comedy of the supernatural” featuring all six actors.
Haunting Julia, dating from 1994, is also described as a comedy, not the term I would have applied. Certainly there are plenty of laughs, by no means all of them nervous, but the play succeeds as a ghost story and, especially, as a taut and gradual revelation of the solitary world of genius and the sad irony of the destructive power of love.
12 years before the events in the play Julia Lukin, a child prodigy of a composer, “Little Miss Mozart” to the media, died of a drug overdose combined with alcohol at the age of 19. Now Joe, her father, has set up the Julia Lukin Centre for Performing Arts in the row of houses where she lived and died as a student, the centre-piece her reconstructed attic room, a roped-off shrine with anodyne commentary by “Julia” to aid the visitors.
Here, one Sunday afternoon, Joe lures Andy, the fellow-student who was in love with Julia and is now married with a young family, and eventually confronts him with the psychic, Ken – all in a desperate attempt to understand the truth about his daughter’s death. Truth, of course, is a dangerous commodity and he learns too much about her life as well as her death.
With two thirds of the original cast, it is perhaps not surprising how completely all the actors inhabit the characters. Ian Hogg is every inch the self-made man struggling for meaning in life, the recent death of his wife having compounded his sense of loss, his bumbling authority shot through with bleating self-pity and bursts of fury. As Ken (who has his secrets, too) Adrian McLoughlin perfectly brings out the ambiguity beneath the bluff, even jovial exterior. The only newcomer, Richard Stacey, finds the right note of buttoned-up scepticism before the agony of the past re-visited.
Richard Derrington’s production takes an appropriately measured approach to peeling off the layers of concealment and steadily ratchets up the tension through nearly two hours uninterrupted by interval. Pip Leckenby’s set is a mass of totally convincing detail: from the just-too-tidy look of the bed-sit to the visitor direction signs.