THE hugely prolific Sir Alan Ayckbourn is loved by his fans for comedies featuring ordinary characters in extraordinary and excruciating situations.
A laugh in an Ayckbourn play usually comes at the price of a squirm or two.
He does ring the changes, however. Haunting Julia, whose acclaimed London production is on its first UK tour, is not billed as a rib-tickler. It shows us another side of Ayckbourn.
“He’s a strange writer, Alan,” confides seasoned actor Duncan Preston whose credits range from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Emmerdale (Doug Potts) via Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies (Stan) and Acorn Antiques (Clifford).
“His construction of a play is second to none, obviously, but he does make it so difficult to learn. You’ve got to get it absolutely right, starting with the punctuation.
“You really do have to learn every comma. If you do learn it, it’s worth it.”
A good Ayckbourn play, frequently offering multiple insights into the action unfolding on stage, is a finely-tuned beast which delivers great rewards but evidently puts great demands on its cast.
As Duncan suggests, put in the graft and you’ll get the applause.
In Haunting Julia, which is coming to Darlington later in the month, he plays Joe, father of the girl they called Little Miss Mozart.
She was a musical prodigy, writing symphonies at the age of eight. But at 19, with the world seemingly at her feet, she was found dead in a pool of blood.
Twelve years after her death, Joe is still tortured by unanswered questions. Did Julia really take her own life? Was someone with her on that fateful night?
Strange sounds and signs have started to haunt the shrine Joe has built to his daughter and the need for an explanation has become urgent.
Haunting Julia has a cast of four but the action focuses on three men: Joe, who is in his 60s; Andy, who is in his 30s and may or may not have been Julia’s student boyfriend; and Ken, who is in his 40s and offers his services as a psychic to Joe.
Joe McFadden plays Andy in the touring production and Richard O’Callaghan is Ken. Louise Kempton completes the four-strong cast and the play is directed by Andrew Hall.
“It has got some funny lines,” says Duncan “... but it’s not essentially a funny play. It’s about building up suspense.
“There are two very long pauses towards the end when nothing happens and you can hear a pin drop.”
Paradoxically, silences are effective on stage but hard to master. Duncan reckons they pay dividends here.
“It’s a wonderful play,” he says, some 10 weeks into the tour, “and we give it our full whack every night. It’s hard work and very concentrated but a writer spends an awful lot more time writing lines than you do learning them and doing them so you bend to his better judgment.”
It’s said that Ayckbourn was moved to write Haunting Julia after witnessing the phenomenal success of The Woman In Black, Susan Hill’s ghost story which was adapted for the stage and premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough when he was its artistic director.
Impressed at how an audience could be kept on tenterhooks by a build-up of suspense and then made to jump, he decided to have a go at something similar.
Haunting Julia opened in Scarborough in 1994 and was a success, although it is said to contain rather more ambiguities than the Hill ghost story with its famous “Yikes!” moment when the audience hits the ceiling. Born in Bradford in 1946, Duncan Preston has a face you’ll have seen on TV many times and maybe on stage too.
He played Doug Potts in Emmerdale until leaving the ITV soap in 2011 to appear in a long-running stage production of To Kill A Mockingbird.
He was a member of the very first RSC company which came to Newcastle in 1977. He was in Macbeth, with Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench, and also Romeo and Juliet. “It was two-and-a-half years of my life,” he recalls.
But he “went nine years without going on stage”, he points out. Television claimed him, meaning his name is on umpteen small screen credits: Casualty, Coronation Street, Surgical Spirit, Heartbeat, Holby City, Peak Practice, Midsomer Murders, you name it.
“I’m a jobbing actor,” he protests, and the fact he’s talking to me from a car park while looking for a hotel in Norwich seems to emphasise the point.
“I went to the National (Theatre) to do Guys and Dolls and it kick-started my love affair with the theatre after doing Victoria Wood and Surgical Spirit and things like that.
“But don’t think I wouldn’t go back to the telly. You only remember how hard the theatre is when you get back into it. I’ll have a holiday after this because I’m not going to do something else for the sake of it. I’m not a youngster any more.”
Duncan’s partner is Susan Penhaligon, also a former Emmerdale star, although they were on the show at different times.
They got married in 1986 and were divorced in 1992. They don’t live together – she has a houseboat on the Thames while he has another place in London – but it seems they can’t live without each other.
“We’ve been together for nearly 30 years,” says Duncan. “She was with me last night. I kissed her goodbye this morning before coming up to Norwich.
“Now I really must find this hotel ...”
Haunting Julia is at Darlington Civic Theatre from November 27 to December 1. Box office: 01325 486555.