Frightening statistics

Sir Alan Ayckbourn, now 71, has written 73 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.

Ready to frighten: The cast of  Haunting Julia in The Studio. Top Richard O'Callaghan who plays the medium with Christopher Timothy, the dad below and Dominic Hecht, the former boyfriend, at the front

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.

Now Julia has finally made it to the Garrick ready to chill to the marrow - you just need to listen to your imagination and your mind will do the rest.

Roger Clarke

Haunting Julia runs at the Lichfield Garrick Studio from October 14 to October 30

The Director Christopher Timothy

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