In this, the long overdue debut UK tour of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1994 supernatural thriller, director Andrew Hall, famed for his critically acclaimed production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, considers this one of the playwright’s gems.
Richard O'Callaghan (Ken), Duncan Preston (Joe) and Joe McFadden (Andy) in Haunting Julia at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester Photo: Robert Day
What initially appears to be a broad, expansive John Brooking set, the sense of claustrophobia is overwhelming. Played out in the shrine that is the Julia Larkin Centre, dedicated to the prodigious 19-year-old musical talent that is Little Miss Mozart, this shabby student living quarters manages to deceptively shrink in stature, purely by tension alone. What appears a tranquil, comforting setting couldn’t be further from the truth.
For a glimpse of what 12 torturous, soul-searching years does to you, look no further than Duncan Preston’s show-stealing portrayal of Julia’s emotional father Joe Lukin. Forever pacing the room on an obsessive search for answers, Preston captures the personification of inner turmoil, as the lonely widower’s desperate anguish and ultimate exhaustion pulls on the heart strings of every parent.
Joe McFadden, playing Julia’s former infatuated admirer Andy Rollinson, is keen to just forget and move on. With his dismissive demeanour, arms often crossed, there is always the feeling that this closed shop of a man has a skeleton in the closet.
Completing the trio, Richard O’Callaghan’s slightly oddball psychic Ken Chase cuts an unconventional character. Clearly knowing more than he lets on, he acts as the catalyst, prodding the consciences of the troubled pair. Unravelling crucial details of our musical prodigy’s demise, you never quite appreciate his role until the close.
With clear Woman In Black elements, here is a deliberate slow-burner with a haunting, fear-inducing finale.