It was seeing the original ghostly thriller The Woman In Black – directed by his long-time collaborator Robin Herford – which inspired Alan Ayckbourn to write arguably his most uncharacteristic play.
Set in modern times, ghost story Haunting Julia takes place 12 years after the death of a talented musical prodigy.
It follows her grieving father, played by Duncan Preston, who one night meets Julia’s former boyfriend and a psychic in his daughter’s old bedroom to find out the truth about her death.
Director Andrew Hall fell in love with the play as soon as he read the script five years ago.
“There are various moments in the evening when you can see the whole audience levitate in front of you,” he says.
“What has been extraordinary doing this play is realising from quite an early stage that it was genuinely scary, but also how moving it was as a piece of theatre.
“As Ayckbourn sat down to write a ghost story he became more interested in the whole area of how a family copes after the loss of a child – which is a key theme running through the play.
“It being Ayckbourn it is beautifully observed. It is about real people doing real things.”
Hint of comedy
Incredibly, the country’s most performed living playwright had even managed to weave laughs into what is quite a serious subject matter.
“We are able to laugh at the characters because they are so true,” says Hall.
“The audience has to believe in something extraordinary, but along the way all the objections that might be raised are beautifully dealt with. The comedy comes out of undermining expectations.
“The psychic for example, rather than being a Madame Arcati character [the exaggerated comic medium from Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit] is a wonderfully ordinary person.”
Much of modern film horror today is down to special effects – a luxury the play doesn’t have.
“There is a moment where a light shines out of a door and that’s it!” laughs Hall. “It’s about the bare bones of theatre – what is created by the actors’ performances, the brilliance of the writing and the involvement of the audience in the proceedings.
“We are playing in Norwich at the moment, and there’s no coughing or rustling from the audience – at times they’re not even breathing!”
Music helps create the atmosphere in the play, building partly on the fact that Julia was a musical genius.
“There is a piece of music in this, but it’s definitely not of her making,” says Hall. “It would be very difficult to find a piece of music you could say she wrote – if you used Chopin for example someone would recognise it. There is a very complex soundscape, partly to do with the sounds specified in the script and partly to do with the whole atmosphere running along beneath the play.
“If you watch a horror movie with the sound off it doesn’t frighten you. It’s the sounds that you’re not aware of in the cinema that unsettle you.”
Hall did some internet research into scary sounds, and Googled the scariest sound in the world.
“I played the sound on my computer and my dog freaked out!” he says. “It was an alarm call of a blackbird slowed down and processed – I asked our sound designer if we could use it in a key moment – it makes it even more discomforting!”
Directing Haunting Julia is quite a world away from Hall’s most famous recent role as an actor, aside from growing up alongside Nicholas Lyndhurst in Carla Lane’s 1970s sitcom Butterflies.
Last year Hall played one of Coronation Street’s most talked-about characters – Audrey’s cross-dressing love interest Marc/Marcia Selby.
“I went into the programme knowing I was doing a storyline with a beginning, middle and end,” he says. “It was an extraordinary, fascinating part to play. Anyone who wears high heels has my utmost sympathy!
“What was interesting about it was how much of a taboo it still is. It’s amazing how much it still seems to discomfort people.”
He spent time researching the role and meeting many real-life cross-dressers who had lived a similar secret life to his character.
“The vast majority of cross-dressers are heterosexual and also rather butch,” he says.
“I had some fascinating conversations with people who have actually gone through it and come out publicly – it requires enormous bravery, driven by an incredible necessity that their lives can’t be lived unless they actually make that choice.
“And whoever decides that they have to make that choice stands a real chance of getting their head kicked in.
“I am very pleased that as a society we have moved so far forward in accepting difference across society compared with where we were 30 or 40 years ago.
“But people are still getting beaten and killed because they are different. We are just so much better as a society when people can show that difference.”
- Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, Tuesday, December 4, to Saturday, December 8. Starts 7.45pm, matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm, tickets from £12. Call 0844 8717650