A Haunting

To mark Halloween, the blog is exploring the story behind Alan Ayckbourn’s first supernatural play, Haunting Julia.

Alan Ayckbourn has, as of 2019, written 83 plays. Since 1959, his work has spanned genres from tragic-comedy to thrillers, science-fiction to farce.

Yet it took 35 years to write his first ghost story – Haunting Julia – and to understand why, one has to look not at the playwright’s own writing but another singularly successful ghost story.

Haunting Julia (1999 SJT tour poster) © Scarborough Theatre Trust

In 1986, Alan took a two year sabbatical from the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, to work as a Company Director at the National Theatre. He appointed Robin Herford as Artistic Director during his absence, who in 1987 had the idea of a ‘Christmas stocking filler’, with a low-budget ghost story in the venue’s studio space.

Resident writer Stephen Mallatratt had read Susan Hill’s novella The Woman In Black and been so impressed, he had contacted the Scarborough-born author about adapting it. She was not convinced it would work, but agreed and Stephen suggested to Robin, he might have the ideal solution.

Stephen’s adaptation of The Woman In Black was a phenomenal success and caught Alan’s attention; Susan Hill recalls him saying that there were now two great plays adapted from ghost stories, The Turn of The Screw and The Woman In Black. Perhaps naturally, the playwright wondered whether he could successfully turn his hand to the genre

Alan set out with the idea to write a ‘second Woman In Black’. The playwright frequently talks about his rule of three in which he needs three good ideas to come together before he begins writing. His second idea was the relationship between parents and children, with the final idea being the nature of genius in children – in this case, musical genius – and how this affects the relationship between parent and child. Thus, Haunting Julia was born.

“I had long felt that, along with making audiences laugh, it must be enormously satisfying to make them jump in their seats and occasionally even scream. I had been inspired and encouraged at seeing the first production of The Woman in Black. Robin Herford’s production created near hysterical reactions.”

Richard Stacey & Ian Hogg in the 2008 SJT revival of Haunting Julia (© Nobby Clark)

There was also another literary inspiration for the play from Shirley Jackson’s famed novel The Haunting of Hill House – more specifically the classic 1963 film adaptation of the novel, The Haunting. Alan was particularly intrigued by both the ambiguous nature of the piece and also a character who will not remotely accept the possibility of supernatural intervention; this is reflected in the play in the character of Andy.

Alan began writing his first ghost story but – not unusually – he found himself distracted by the characters and their lives, subtly shifting the play’s focus.

“Although I set out to write a ghost story, as ever I got distracted on the way. That’s always happening. I set out sometimes to write frivolous farces, only one of the characters becomes deeply depressed or threatens to take their own life, and that’s that…. So, although the ghost of Julia still haunts the play, it is really about children, their parents and what they occasionally do to each other and to innocent bystanders – all in the name of love. Not much change there.”

Richard Derrington in the 1999 SJT revival of Haunting Julia (© Tony Bartholomew)

Haunting Julia opened on 20 April 1994 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round featuring Ian Hogg as Joe. Despite his powerful performance, it was not a completely satisfying experience, perhaps due to the fact Alan had staged it in-the-round when it was conceived for the end-stage.

Alan had originally hoped it would be the opening production of the end-stage McCarthy auditorium at the then being built new Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. However, delays in building and the detrimental effects of a Government funding cut meant Alan staged the play earlier than he originally intended and produced it in-the-round at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.

The play did eventually get revived in the McCarthy space at the SJT in 1999, where – performed in the end-stage – it was far more successful. The play’s popularity was emphasised In 2008, when it was again revived at the SJT with Ian Hogg reprising his original role. It would eventually be produced in London with a production in 2011 at the Riverside Studios; despite the fact it was intended Haunting Julia would originally transfer straight to London in 1994, it stands as the Ayckbourn play with the longest gap between its world premiere and London premiere.

World and London premiere posters for Haunting Julia

Ultimately, Alan would be the first to admit he hadn’t created a second The Woman In Black, but then it would have been surprising if he had. His plays are rooted in character and it became a play far more about the living than the dead. The playwright still fondly remembers it did achieve what he had originally set out to do though.

“It’s a play about coming to terms with sudden loss. Of the difficulty of truly understanding human genius. Of living with an abnormal talent. Of the effect that a suicide must have on those left behind. Of the guilt and the anger and the sorrow it can create in its wake. And, yes, it’s still a ghost story. And I must confess to a great thrill when, on the opening night, the whole audience did rise several inches off their seats in shock. And, yes, someone actually screamed.”

This article is adapted from a piece written by Simon Murgatroyd for the the 2018 revival of Haunting Julia at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornschurch. The article is copyright of Haydonning Ltd and should not be reproduced without permission of the author.

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