Prepare to be scared . . .


Frighteners: Director and producer Andrew Hall, left, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Duncan Preston, who played father Joe, co-producer Tracey Childs,  Richard O'Callaghan who plays Clairvoyant Ken, co-producer Jamie Clark, and Joe McFadden who plays boyfriend Andy at a Ayckbourn tribute performance at Richmond.

THINK of Alan Ayckbourn and the foibles of middle class suburbia spring to mind with normality nudged off balance to set up a chain reaction of social calamity at the sophisticated end of farce.

Yet hidden among Sir Alan's 76 plays is one which is of a much darker hue, where laughter is a stranger - Haunting Julia which opens at Wolverhampton Grand next week.

It is a play which has never toured before and of six productions this current one is the one Ayckbourn, who was a guest at a recent gala evening in his honour at Richmond Theatre, says he likes the most which is praise indeed as three previous productions were directed by himself and Andrew Hall and Tracey Childs were involved with the rest, including this production.

Hall, the director, first directed the play at Lichfield Garrick two years ago with Christopher Timothy in the lead role – Timothy was unavailable for the tour so his role as the father is taken by Duncan Preston.

The plot is simple; Julia was a musical prodigy, aged 19 with a glittering career ahead of her until she committed suicide 12 years ago.

Her father, Joe, has never managed to come to terms with her death and has turned his dead  daughter's bedroom into a shrine as he searches for answers and reasons.

He invites Andy, Julia's boyfriend and the last person to see her alive, to see it along with Ken, a psychic, or perhaps a charlatan, who believes she can be contacted and even that she will appear.

The problem is how to describe Haunting Julia which is neither a horror story, nor a ghost story in the conventional sense. Co-producer Tracey Childs, best remembered as Lynne Howard in Howard's Way, went straight to the horse's mouth and asked Ayckbourn how he would describe it.

 Duncan Preston as Julia's father Joe in the shrine he has created in his dead daughter's student flat bedroom.

He replied: “I set out originally to write a ghost story and I soon found out I was writing less about ghosts and more about the people they leave behind; in short it is a supernatural love story.”

The production has no state of the art, shock tactic special effects yet it  still manages to chill the audience to the marrow and Childs said: “I have always thought that audience's imaginations were much more sophisticated than people give them credit for and I think simpler is better.

“I didn't want people sitting there thinking ‘I wonder how they did that' and then they miss the next bit of the action. People should get caught up in the story because it is not about the special effects it is about those three men in the room and what they have created. It is their love for this girl, and their guilt and everything else that has conjured her up. The emotion is much more important than what goes bang in the night.”

This is third Hall and Childs production, stars Preston, Richard O'Callaghan, who was in the original Garrick production and Joe McFadden and Childs said: “There has never been a national tour and we love the play, we are passionate about it. It is an Ayckbourn unknown gem just sitting there.”

Haunting Julia runs at Wolverhampton Grand from 15-10-12 to 20-10-12

Roger Clarke


The play

Frightening statistics

Sir Alan Ayckbourn, now 73, has written 76 full length plays - Shakespeare is credited with a mere 38 or so - with Haunting Julia his 47th, a play which has been sporadically scaring the wits out of audiences since 1994.

Its inspiration was The Woman in Black, the play by Stephen Mallatratt which was adapted from Susan Hill's 1983 thriller novel.

The Woman in Black was first revealed to audiences in 1987 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-Round in Scarborough where Ayckbourn had been artistic director since 1972 - a position he held until the 2009-10 season. 

Mallatratt's stage version relies on little more than actors feeding the imagination of the audience who in turn will then scare the pants off themselves. The chilling tale is all in the mind of those paying to frighten themselves.

The idea must have appealed to Ayckbourn, who incidentally was on a sabbatical at the National Theatre when the play was first performed. He was particularly taken by the idea that terror could be created without the need of elaborate special effects but with just good acting and a suggestive storyline.

The result was Haunting Julia - a new play which was set to open in new premises.

In spring 1994 the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough was expecting to move from its in-the- round Westwood site in a former high school to new premises in a former Odeon cinema in the seaside resort - its current home today.


But delays and problems dogged the conversion and it was to be 1996 before the new theatre was ready for its grand opening - two years behind schedule.

With Julia ready to haunt but with completion of the Odeon hardly imminent the choice was simple; shelve Julia or go ahead at the existing theatre-in-the-round.

Ayckbourn had written the play as a proscenium production but with no choice - and no proscenium - it premiered on 20 April 1994 in the round to mixed reviews - suffering the Marmite syndrome. Reviewers either loved it or hated it. 

The  play was a certainly a departure from Ayckbourn's earlier work which often encompassed the marriage rituals of the suburban middle classes with such comedies as The Norman Conquests and Bedroom Farce.

The reviewers seemed to fall into two camps. Those who liked the more abstract storyline exploring more contemporary themes and those who missed the Ayckbourn of old, of sophisticated comedies about married couples such as Absurd Person Singular.


Change is not always accepted first time around. Later revivals of the play however have attracted generally favourable notices

There were plans for a move to the West End in 1995 but those fell through and Julia returned to the afterlife until a revival in 1999, this time as an end-stage production in the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, the converted Odeon, five years after it had first been due there. Again a move to the West End was mooted but Julia remained rooted in Scarborough.

The play was finally published in 2005 and a major tour was planned but again nothing came of it and it was 27 May 2008 before Julia was again haunting the Stephen Joseph Theatre with that production then touring to the New Victoria theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, theatres linked by the late Stephen Joseph's The Studio Theatre Company.

Julia reappeared at the Lichfield Garrick, then the Riverside Studios in London before embarking on a national tour ready to chill to the marrow - you just need to listen to your imagination and your mind will do the rest.

Roger Clarke

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