Derby Theatre, Monday 22nd October, 2012
I first saw this production over a year ago in the confines of the studio at Lichfield’s Garrick theatre. There the proximity of the audience added claustrophobia to the set. Now on tour in larger venues, the set has been extended and details have been added – even though the audience is now at a distance, there is still a hemmed-in atmosphere, and it works very well indeed.
Widower and bereaved father, Joe (Duncan Preston) has bought and preserved the student digs of his musical genius daughter, the eponymous and unseen Julia, and has established a shrine-cum-museum-cum-education centre in her memory. He invites Julia’s former boyfriend, Andy (Joe McFadden) now a married man and a music teacher, to have a look around. But there is an ulterior motive: strange sounds like laughter and weeping have appeared on the commentary tapes. Joe has invited local psychic Ken Chase (Richard O’Callaghan) to find out if he can shed some light…
Atypically for an Ayckbourn play, these characters are not monsters of the middle class held up for ridicule or pity. These three men are rounded, understandable creations: the grieving father, the cynic, and the believer. Between them, and with some carefully crafted dialogue and monologues, they crank up the tension, slowly building, suddenly puncturing, then building again. It is a masterpiece in scary drama, less overtly theatrical than long-running West End hit The Woman In Black, but equally as effective.
Preston is powerful as the driven father, seeking understanding of his daughter’s premature death. McFadden is at once the audience’s eyes, leading us into the situation, but comes into his own when he reveals his own involvement in the tragedy. But for me, the evening belongs to Richard O’Callaghan as the slimeball psychic, too old for his ponytail, the antithesis of Coward’s Madame Arcati. We are kept guessing about him: is he genuine? Is he faking? Until the action runs its course and reaches a climax.
You don’t need to believe in ghosts or the afterlife or anything of that nature. The play invites you to suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours. It lures you in, not with trickery and special effects, but with the compelling humanity of the characters.
Director Andrew Hall handles every aspect of the production expertly, using visuals, sounds and even temperature to optimum effect. The performances of the cast are allowed to shine through but yet again it is Ayckbourn’s mastery of the craft of making theatre, of revealing humanity, that is the true star.