THEATRE / Low on spirit: Paul Taylor on Alan Ayckbourn's latest play

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The Independent Culture
Alan Ayckbourn is to writer's block all that Proust was to the meet-the-author signing tour. A mere matter of weeks since the premiere of his 46th play, Haunting Julia (opus 47) now rolls off his word processor and into the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

Ordinarily, he unveils just one new play for adults a year, but the word on the grapevine is that he was so fired up by this latest piece that he couldn't restrain himself from staging it straight away. Anticipation was further whetted by a gentleman who came on before proceedings began. He was there to drum up financial support for the theatre's forthcoming move (to the local Odeon, currently being converted into a two-auditorium venue at a cost of pounds 4.5m), and he described Haunting Julia as a 'departure' for Ayckbourn.

A departure from his senses, maybe, for (bafflingly coming from such a master technician) this interval-free three-hander fails to command credence on any level.

It asks you, for example, to accept that Joe (Ian Hogg), the now-widowed father of Julia, a Mozart-like composer prodigy who killed herself 12 years ago aged 19, would set up a public shrine to her genius in the shape of a loving reconstruction in situ of the very attic room where she committed suicide.

It also requires you to believe that Ken (a nicely nerdy Adrian McLoughlin), the janitor whose family had befriended the girl, would, out of some obscure fear of getting involved with the police, wait a full 12 years before approaching Joe with crucial, consoling news: on the day she died, Julia had confided in Ken how much she actually loved the smothering, domineering father from whom she had had to estrange herself.

The needlessly eccentric method Ken adopts for conveying this information is to pose as a complete stranger to her, a psychic who has just happened to pick up the dead girl's vibes on a visit to the shrine. How he hopes to make things better by taking a course so prone to exposure and misconstruction is never clear.

Although some perfunctory suspicion is allowed to hover for a while over the paranormal phenomena in the museum, the play (skilfully directed by the author) eventually turns into a drama about the emotional adjustments the living must make and the truths they must face up to before a ghost can be released. On edge and perpetually badgering, Ian Hogg's father is just the sort of determined, self-made man who would have responded to having an incongruous genius in the family with all the smothering pride and baffled bravado of someone out of his depth. The casting of Julia's former boyfriend is not so happy, however, Damien Goodwin looking about a decade too young and given to speaking with the 'helpful' over-emphasis of bad radio acting.

What the production and two of its characters should be haunted by, of course, is the sound of the glorious music Julia left behind. But, given the shortage of modern-day Mozarts to deliver the goods, the piece has to be almost wholly silent on that topic. Self-inflictedly handicapped by this central musical absence, Haunting Julia has its work cut out haunting the audience.

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