Haunting Julia: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Haunting Julia at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1994. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author.

Haunting Julia by (Robin Thornber)
"Alan Ayckbourn's new play is unlike anything he's done before. It's a ghost story. It's a chiller. And it runs for 110 minutes without an interval. It's still very funny - and gently but disturbingly profound.
Here's this girl, a musical infant prodigy who was composing at the age of three and the tabloids called Little Miss Mozart. She died of an overdose, 12 years ago, while still a student. And her uncomprehending father, who's built a heritage museum around her bed-sit, wants to know why.
So he invites her ex-boyfriend and a psychic to visit her room and hear the commentary tapes which he believes have recorded her voice from beyond. The boyfriend is sceptical; the psychic is excited.
Ayckbourn just keeps on breaking all the rules. After
Communicating Doors, where he postulated a time-warp that has to be true, he now gives us a ghost who has to be real. Unfinished business, he suggests, has to be dealt with.
And he does it so convincingly that Julia's presence dominates a stage with only three male actors. You feel her anguish as "a freak wrapped in cotton-wool", which is how most gifted children, over-protected by their pushy parents, must feel. There's a confessional element here.
Genius is hard to live with because when your head's full of ideas it's awkward: you can't give or accept the sort of love that helps the rest of us get by. And a father who dominates doesn't help.
Ayckbourn's production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough has wickedly knowing performances from Ian Hogg as the father, Damien Goodwin as the boyfriend and Adrian McLoughlin as the psychic, and a couple of superb theatrical strokes which make it as exciting as
The Woman In Black.
Jan Bee Brown's setting evokes both the student world and its plastic recreation and springs genuine surprises beautifully. The psychology of dead Julia's relationship with her self-made father is unnerving.
For a play that cries out "Let your children go and be themselves"
Haunting Julia is persuasively soft-spoken. Alan Ayckbourn has defied all the rules and done it again."
(The Guardian, April 1994)

Haunting Julia (by John Peters)
"Alan Ayckbourn's new play is several plays in one. It is a ghost story without a ghost - though to elaborate on that would give too much away. Julia Lukin was a musical genius who, 12 years ago, at 19, died of an overdose in her university students' residence. Her father Joe (Ian Hogg), a Yorkshire businessman, has built a study centre there, dedicated to her memory. Her bedroom, where she died, is preserved like a shrine; and Joe has brought Julia's former boyfriend Andy (Damien Goodwin) to see it.
For Joe, Julia is dead but not gone. He is obsessed with her presence. Why did Little Miss Mozart, as the tabloids called her, die? Is any contact possible? Enter middle-aged Ken Chase (Adrian McLoughlin), who is psychic. Or is he? From behind a door, bricked up years ago, comes the sound of a piano.
This play is a follow-on to Ayckbourn's last,
Communicating Doors: tighter, harsher, more eerie, full of hard questions. The air is tense with mystery and unease, guilt and suspicion. Inside the ghost story there is a play about mourning, about letting go, about remorse which it would be destructive to identify.
Were Joe or Andy responsible for Julia's death? Further inside, there's yet another play: one about the loneliness and emotional immaturity of the precocious, the price such a child has to pay for being over-protected, the trauma of crossing the threshold to adulthood. This is a haunting and haunted play, hard and generous and very much for the living."
(The Times, April 1994)

Spectral Sonata From A Master (by Kate Bassett)
"Alan Ayckbourn: wow, what a spooky guy. His latest play, directed by himself, is a ghost story.
Wildest Dreams, which dabbled with intergalactic aliens, pales in comparison, though frankly it was pretty anaemic in the first place.
Julia, the musical prodigy whose teenage suicide 12 years ago has remained unexplained, never exactly materialises. However, we hear her footsteps on the stairs and a haunting tune on a spectral piano in her student digs which her claustrophobically protective father Joe has turned into a museum. He now returns there with her former boyfriend Andy, who may have caused her to kill herself.
Haunting Julia is an eerie yarn for a dark night. Humour hovers throughout in the corner of your eye while upsetting images of bereaved grief and guilt rise up and fade away. There are melodramatic moments, and Julia seems to have lost some of her inventive originality in the beyond. She records echoey laughter over the museum's press-and-listen soundtrack. Nevertheless, Ayckbourn manages to twist a mystery out of such clichés. We are rendered both superstitious and suspicious, not certain if the uncanny goings-on are genuine or a theatrical set-up by Joe or Ken the psychic.
Ayckbourn revisits themes floated in his recent works: death; time; how men destroy women; and how women exert power over men. In spite of dealing with the supernatural, this play feels surprisingly real. The resurfacing of history is less complicatedly contrived than in
Time of My Life with its tables in present, past and future, and Communicating Doors where a woman goes into a cupboard and comes out 20 years earlier. This drama does reminisce at length about an absentee, yet the human relations seem more fleshed out than in Wildest Dreams.
Damien Goodwin's Andy, the sceptic of the threesome concerning the spirit world, is not totally believable himself (the part is slightly awkward) but Ian Hogg's Joe is excellent, stockily bluff while teetering on the edge of breakdown. Adrian McLoughlin is nerdy, likeable and electrically charged as Ken, Ayckbourn's ghostbuster in an anorak. Still, it becomes increasingly clear that this persona is the ESP scene's answer to priests and shrinks. He gets Joe and Andy to talk through their trauma, and theatre starts to look like therapy.
The play has trouble finishing itself off. The tension builds towards Julia's arrival yet special effects are not the stage's strong point. How scared can you be by a squirt of mist, a green gel and a wind machine? Joe's brief chat with an invisible being is disappointing as a cathartic and dramatic climax.
Ayckbourn's study of "Little Miss Mozart" reinvestigates territory explored in
Amadeus: the character of a genius; a composer's relationship with a father she cannot shake off; and creativity that drives towards premature death. This is also a play for today. It touches on the failures of education and parenting, on media pressure and overdoses. Kurt Cobain comes to mind. More universally Haunting Julia mourns how, in adolescence and adulthood, we do our loves wrong."
(The Times, 26 April 1994)

Haunting Julia (by David Jeffels)
"The indefatigable Alan Ayckbourn, still basking in the success of
Communicating Doors, which had its premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre earlier this year, has penned probably one of his most gripping works yet in Haunting Julia.
His 47th full length play, it is a masterpiece in thriller writing from a playwright whose reputation has been built on comedy.
But here we have another dimension of Ayckbourn who exudes all the skills of Agatha Christie as he holds his audience in the no interval story of a man's determination to discover the truth about his daughter's death 15 years earlier.
Set in the attic where she died, the play is a haunting experience which sees an intriguing succession of storylines emerge as the father's obsession gathers pace.
He has dominated his daughter's life, yet she rarely returned home to her family when studying at university where her subject, music, proved to be her only refuge.
She developed a close relation ship with a foster family, the college janitor, who becomes a key figure in the web of intrigue over her death.
We never see Julia although Ayckbourn makes her presence dramatically felt through the use of brilliant effects.
The three handed play features Ian Hogg as the father, Damien Goodwin as the boyfriend, and Adrian McLoughlin as the janitor.
Speculation of a secret admirer, whether her death was an accident or suicide on the night her boyfriend was to tell her he was leaving her for someone else, are just a few of the intrigues which pepper this excellent production which is directed by the author and forms part of the summer season of plays at the Stephen Joseph.
Jan Bee Brown deserves special mention for the set design, and Jackie Staines for brilliant lighting effects.
Scarborough audiences are certainly in for a treat this summer before the play finds its way, as it surely will, into the West End."
(The Stage, April 1994)

Ayckbourn Finds A Good Haunt (by Charles Hutchinson)
"Walking through a country churchyard on Sunday, the sentiment on a gravestone stopped me in my tracks. "One day we will understand," it read. The man had been taken from this world at only 23.
For 12 years, Joe Lukin has been struggling with the same emotion, since his daughter Julia, the musical genius daughter of this average, working-class Joe, had died in a pool of blood after an overdose of pills. She was 19, and music had been bursting out of her head, so much so that she could never see daylight for all the notes blocking her view.
In Alan Ayckbourn's new ghost story, Joe (Ian Hogg) will go to any length for answers. He still refuses to believe that the prodigy the tabloids dubbed Little Miss Mozart really committed suicide.
Her college attic room, where her music consumed her, today forms part of the Julia Lukin Centre for Performing Arts. It was in these damp little quarters that her life came to its fretful, frothing end and that now, on a twee taped account of her short life, inexplicable sobs and pained voices can be heard. Could this be Julia giving a message from beyond the grave?
Joe thinks so, but can he convince Andy (Damien Godwin)? Now married, teaching and living in nuclear family happiness, Andy was Julia's lightweight boyfriend. He knows more than he has ever thought it right to let on.
But, as always, Joe is unable to stand back. Julia's death may be haunting him, but his overbearing presence haunted her throughout her brief, brilliant life. Now he is doing so again, disturbing her spirit.
When he calls in Ken Chase (Adrian McLoughlin), a mortuary attendant with a dubious line in psychic powers, the truth emerges chink by chink, as walls, both mental and physical, are removed amid neck-tingling but often comic tension.
This world premiere of Ayckbourn's 47th play finds him more engaged with exploring theatrical form than character, much as he was in
Communicating Doors.
With no interval, the ghostly mood creeps up on you like a spider.
No Ayckbourn play would be complete without a technical sleight of hand. Giving nothing away, this time it leaves the audience scratching their heads, looking at the ceiling or examining Julia's bed for clues. However it is achieved, it's a bloody clever trick."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, April 1994)

Haunting Julia (by Alfred Hickling)
"Take care with that teddy - it is loaded.
This is indeed the third replacement bear, the predecessors having been filched by prying visitors to the Julia Lukin Centre for Performing Studies.
So the next thief is going to be in for a bit of a surprise, the proprietor of the Centre, Joe Lukin, tells us.
But as we discover, Mr Lukin has something of a penchant for nailing things down or screwing them up - including his daughter, a child prodigy composer, in whose memory this macabre memorial has been constructed.
Half a career ago, Alan Ayckbourn became fascinated with the possibilities of off-stage characters, such as Dick and Lottie the dreadful party guests we "thankfully" never saw, or the hypochondriacally character from Absent Friends who phones his contribution in.
The author's 47th play creates thrilling theatrical tension around a character not only off stage but off this mortal coil.
Haunting Julia is a chamber quartet for three actors and a presence - Ayckbourn's most cloistered, concentrated and intensely atmospheric piece to date.
In Joe Lukin he has created a harrowing portrait of gnawing obsession, brilliantly realised by the drawn and devastated Ian Hogg - a man teetering blindly on the edge of his wits.
Drawn into his nightmare are Julia's ex-boyfriend - enigmatically played by Damien Goodwin - and a bizarre male suburban version of Madame Arcati, magnificently created by Adrian McLoughlin.
Purposefully conceived on a minute scale, paradoxically this could be Ayckbourn's most ambitious work so far."
(Yorkshire Post, April 1994)

Ayckbourn's Spirit Is Willing (by Phil Penfold)
"Alan Ayckbourn started his career in radio. For his 47th play, he returns to it.
Haunting Julia is indisputably a script that would work perfectly in the sound medium; the supernatural seldom works well on stage (film, with its myriad effects, is another matter) and in close-up, as it is here in this intimate theatre, it requires a colossal suspension of belief to achieve the goals that Ayckbourn sets.
The thrust is of obsession and rejection, a young woman, idolised by her father and a prodigious musical talent, has committed suicide. But why, as a glittering career beckons, should this have happened?
At the "shrine" that he has built to her memory, gather father, ex-lover, and a local psychic.
As the impassioned father, Ian Hogg is beautifully wound up, wracked with tension. Damien Goodwin looks far to young to be an early-thirty-something ex beau with a secret, and it isn't particularly fair on him that most of his lines are monosyllabically reactive ("really?", "are you?") but Adrian McLoughlin walks off with the evening playing the chuckling but earnest spiritualist.
McLoughlin's timing is, perfect, changing from low-gear explanations into high-octane bravura which is never over the top."
(Unknown publication - possibly Teletext, April 1994)

A Re-Assessment

The Daily Telegraph's critic Charles Spencer offers an interesting insight into the play. He reviewed both the world premiere production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1994 and its London premiere at the Riverside Studios in 2011. Here are presented both his reviews, which - as the author admits in the 2011 review - are poles apart in their views on Haunting Julia.

Ghost Of Himself (by Charles Spencer)
"When you have written 10 more plays than Shakespeare, I suppose you are entitled to the occasional dud, but there are moments when it is hard to believe that Alan Ayckbourn is the author of
Haunting Julia.
This is the second play he has premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in three months.
Communicating Doors, still in the repertory, is one of his most enjoyable shows in years, but Haunting Julia, an attempt at a ghost story, is surprisingly ponderous. You have to give Ayckbourn credit for refusing to settle into a comfortable rut, hut this is one work he should probably have been left to languish in
the bottom drawer.
The action is set in a student bed-sit which has has become a museum exhibit. It was here that the musical child prodigy Julia Lukin composed many of her works, before dying at the age of 19. Her father, who has recreated the room in what is now the Julia Lukin Centre for Performing Studies, is still grieving for his daughter 12 years after her death. Less plausibly, he still seems to be, in the dark about how and why she died.
Determined to establish the truth, he has arranged to meet both Julia's former boyfriend and a psychic at the scene of her death. There is a great deal of plodding exposition as father (Ian Hogg) and boyfriend (Damien Goodwin) tell each other things they must both know already, and equally contrived attempts to establish a spooky atmosphere.
I have a hunch that Ayckbourn wanted to create a truly dark work, a painful study in loss and obsession. But in Hogg's curiously uninvolving performance, I never came to believe in the mourning misery of the father. Just as damagingly, the dead girl herself never comes alive in the memories of those who loved her best. Much of the writing is flat to the point of tedium, while the psychological speculation about Julia seems numbingly predictable.
Ayckbourn is, however, incapable of writing a complete flop. The character of the psychic Ken (Adrian McLoughlin) is a lovely study in suburban platitudes and in the last 10 minutes or so, the show starts to generate frissons of real fear, as the true nature of Julia's miserable death comes to light and the special effects go into overdrive.
But this is a play which can't decide whether it is a serious study of grief, guilt and the stresses facing infant prodigies or an unashamedly exploitative flesh-creeper. It aims for both and misses."
(Daily Telegraph, 26 April 1994)

Haunting Julia (by Charles Spencer)
Back in 1994, I gave Alan Ayckbourn’s
Haunting Julia a dusty review when it opened in Scarborough and I slouched into this revival in Hammersmith with reluctance. Yet this time I found myself gripped by a piece that now strikes me as an unusually rich and deeply felt stage thriller.
The play was a real departure for Ayckbourn. It has its comic moments, but most of the laughter is of the nervy variety that comes from an audience that doesn’t know what surprise is going to be sprung next. And by the end there are involuntary screams and gasps from the house as Ayckbourn racks up the dramatic tension.
Julia was a musical child prodigy, dubbed Little Miss Mozart by the press, who composed music with apparently effortless ease from her earliest years.
But twelve years before the play begins she died of a drink and drug overdose in her student digs at the age of 19. What went wrong? Her devoted father has turned her room into a shrine-like museum and the rest of the building into a university music centre, but he is still tormented by the mystery surrounding her death. And now strange sounds have been discovered on the audiotape that describes Julia’s life as a student to those visiting her bed-sit. In one recording a young woman is heard laughing, on a second sobbing inconsolably. What’s more the place is eerily cold.
So Julia’s father brings along her former boyfriend and invites a psychic to investigate what’s going on.
Andrew Hall’s tense production creates an atmosphere of gathering unease, and the simplest dramatic devices - a turning door handle, the sound of footsteps - create frissons of fear. Gradually we come to perceive that Julia’s father had an unhealthy relationship with his daughter and that his pride in her genius made her feel like “a freak in cotton wool”.
The play also suggests that great talent is a far from unmixed blessing. We learn that Julia thought her musical gifts were like “a great cloud in front of the sun”, blocking out her ability to enjoy ordinary life. One wonders whether Ayckbourn is communicating his own reservations about the writing that dominates his life.
The play, in short, despite all the tricks of a conventional ghost thriller, combines emotional intelligence and a raw sense of pain.
Christopher Timothy is superb as the father, his bluff, no-nonsense Yorkshire manner failing to mask terrible grief and awakening guilt. Richard O’Callaghan is equally fine as the disconcerting psychic, comically creepy at first with his lisp and ingratiating manner, but gradually revealing a genuine wisdom and generosity of heart, while Dominic Hecht as the sceptical boyfriend offers some chilling climactic revelations.
Good stage thrillers are a rare treat these days, and this one is out of the top drawer. I’m only sorry it has taken me so long to realise the fact.
(Daily Telegraph, 2 June 2011)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.