When Alan Ayckbourn’s one-act drama was first staged in 1994, it ruffled some feathers. This was not a comedy of middle-class manners, written in the social-realist mode for which the dramatist was known, but a ghost story about a widower’s haunting. Joe is a grieving father whose daughter, Julia, was a music prodigy – and a celebrity – before she took an overdose at the age of 19. Twelve years on, he is still questioning her death as he convenes a meeting with her former boyfriend, Andy, and a local psychic, Ken, in her old home. He insists it was not suicide, they say it was, and he is living in the past.
Ayckbourn has gone back to the play to turn it into an audio drama and also returned to his early career in acting by voicing it almost entirely by himself. It is the second play of the year in which he has acted (the first was Anno Domino) and it is again being aired online by the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough.
If, like Joe, Ayckbourn cannot let go of unfinished business in his own past, it serves him well here. Haunting Julia has great fluidity and speed as a 90-minute audio drama, building its tensions with sinister sounds rising from Julia’s old home to the climax of a nail-biting end.
Paul Robinson, the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph theatre, tells us in his introduction that, while Ayckbourn acted in Anno Domino alongside his wife Heather Stoney, this second audio play sees him “flying solo” in playing all its characters. It is true he plays the three central men, but Naomi Petersen voices some parts, too. The men’s voices are distinct and convincing on the whole but, just as in , Anno Domino, the youngest character, Andy, does not have a youthful enough voice to set him apart from the older characters.
Apart from this quibble, the rest works superbly. As the supernatural side of the story develops, we are led in various directions, questioning the sanity of the father, the veracity of the psychic, and the intentions of Julia’s boyfriend. Each man harbours guilt and secrets. At points, it begins to feel like a whodunnit; at others, a family psychodrama; and then back to a haunted house story. It is engaging on every level and keeps us guessing until the end.
The focus is not so much on the fresh trauma of losing a child – it is 12 years on after all – but the difficulty of letting the death go: “There are still questions,” insists Joe. The nature of genius is also explored in relation to parenting. “We produced Julia … Little Miss Mozart!” Joe exclaims, pointing out his own “ordinariness” in comparison to Julia’s talent.
The discussion has shades of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus as Joe puzzles over the source of her gift but Ayckbourn also suggests that the burden of such prodigious talent on a child genius is a dangerously heavy one that can be traced back to stultifying, over-protective and guilty parenting.
Haunting Julia is available online from 1 December to 5 January.