Far more than any supernatural scariness, the simple inability to move on from the death of a loved one is at the heart of Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia.
The low-key ghost story, originally conceived as a subtler counterpoint to Stephen Mallatratt’s Woman in Black, is given a robust treatment here, with director Lucy Pitman-Wallace aiming for a melodramatic archness that jars against Ayckbourn’s grounded naturalism.
Following the suicide of his 19 year old musical prodigy daughter, Sam Cox’s motormouthed businessman Joe is left flabbergasted by irreconcilable grief and guilt. Clive Llewellyn is all well-meaning awkwardness as mildly psychic mortician Ken, while Matthew Spencer rounds out the trio as a sceptical former boyfriend who knows more than he lets on. He alone manages to wring some real emotion from his part, describing the events leading up to Julia’s death in gutting detail.
After a flabby first half, the show gains depth and energy as it rolls towards its conclusion. The final few moments, when events finally lurch from insinuated spookiness to furniture-smashing, blood-spattered excess, are effective despite their heavily signposted inevitability thanks to some atmospheric effects and a couple of unsettling illusions.
Jess Curtis’ unfussy set is split in two by a velvet rope. On one side, Julia’s student bedroom is preserved as a literal museum piece by her overbearing father. On the other, a vast photograph of a child at a piano dominates the space, a constant reminder of everything Joe is unable to let go.