Review:Haunting Julia (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, December 8)

Fans of Alan Ayckbourn have had the chance in the past couple of years to see revivals of his works ranging from classic farce to sci-fi, containing variously his trademark wit, commentary on suburban middle classes, or exploration of contemporary themes.

In Haunting Julia, first produced in 1994 and inspired by the nerve-jangling theatrical experience of The Woman in Black, you can expect things to go bump in the night, as well as having your emotions toyed with and your nightmares fed for several weeks.

Ayckbourn has masterfully created a chilling ghost story that is also a tense, claustrophobic drama – but in a way it’s unfortunate that publicity compares the piece to Woman in Black as it is a completely different creature, far more subtle and with the characters given greater psychological depth.

The dark core of the plot is the suicide of musical wunderkind Julia (commonly referred to as “Little Miss Mozart”), who committed suicide at the age of 19, and whose memory is being kept alive 12 years on by her grieving father by way of a centre dedicated to music and featuring her old room as a macabre museum centrepiece.

Duncan Preston is tremendous as the teenager’s dad Joe, on the surface calm and collected, yet within a maelstrom of questioning, unsure if he should take the blame for the death of his talented daughter, and blind to her loneliness. He has plenty of lengthy soliloquies from which he wrings every drop of grief and bewilderment, never once becoming boring, and captures a spectrum of anger, despair, and hurt.

He is joined in the interactive experience (interactive in more ways than one, it turns out) of Julia’s room by her former boyfriend Andy, played with a mix of bemusement and cynicism by Joe McFadden, and a psychic with his own secrets, Ken, played engagingly by Richard O’Callaghan.

Director Andrew Hall finds the correct balance between humour and horror and manages to keep the action moving along without ever losing the necessity of exploring the characters’ relationships with each other and with Julia, allowing each to face their unresolved issues and ensuring the minimal supernatural effects are scary without being intrusive and silly and building to an un-nerving climax.

To be honest this may well be one of those plays you either love or loathe, especially if you go along expecting more in the way of in your face schlock and less discussion about such issues as guilt, the nature of grief, the pressures of fame, the role of parents in promoting the talents of their children and the struggle for offspring to live up to expectations.

Perhaps the true ghosts of the piece are the demons and spectres that drive the gifted and blinker the insight of those who care for them.

David Guest