When Alan Ayckbourn’s one-act drama first debuted in 1994, it caused confusion. This was not a comedy of middle-class manners, written in the social-realist way the playwright was known for, but a ghost story about the ghost of a widower. Joe is a grieving father whose daughter, Julia, was a musical prodigy, and a celebrity, before she overdosed at age 19. Twelve years later, she still questions his death while calling for a meeting with her ex-boyfriend. Andy and a local psychic, Ken, at their old home. He insists it was not a suicide, they say it was, and he is living in the past.
Ayckbourn has returned to the play to turn it into an audio drama and also returned to his early acting career by voicing it almost entirely on his own. It is the second play of the year in which he has acted (the first was Anno Domino) and it is being broadcast online by the Stephen Joseph Theater in Scarborough.
If, like Joe, Ayckbourn cannot put aside the unfinished business of his own past, it serves him well here. Haunting Julia has great fluidity and speed like a 90-minute audio drama, building its tensions with sinister sounds rising from Julia’s old house to the climax of a thrilling ending.
Paul Robinson, the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theater, tells us in his introduction that, while Ayckbourn was performing in Anno Domino with his wife Heather Stoney, this second audio work sees him “flying solo” playing all of his characters. It is true that she plays the three central men, but Naomi Petersen also voices some roles. The men’s voices are distinct and compelling in general, but, as in Anno Domino, the younger character, Andy, does not have a young enough voice to differentiate him from the older characters.
Apart from this objection, the rest works wonders. As the supernatural side of the story unfolds, we are taken in various directions, questioning the sanity of the father, the veracity of the psychic, and the intentions of Julia’s boyfriend. Every man harbors guilt and secrets. At times, it begins to feel like a detective story; in others, a family psychodrama; and then back to the story of a haunted house. It’s interesting on all levels and keeps us guessing until the end.
The focus is not so much on the recent trauma of losing a child, after all, 12 years have passed, but on the difficulty of letting go of death: “There are still questions,” Joe insists. The nature of genius is also explored in relation to parenthood. “We have produced Julia … little Miss Mozart!” Joe exclaims, pointing out his own “coarseness” compared to Julia’s talent.
The discussion has overtones of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus as Joe puzzles the source of his gift, but Ayckbourn also suggests that the burden of such prodigious talent on a boy genius is dangerously heavy, stretching back to brutalizing, overprotective and guilty. breeding.
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