Haunting Julia, Remember You Are Beauty Full, The Man Who Had All The Luck

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HAUNTING JULIA at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, REMEMBER YOU ARE BEAUTY FULL at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THE MAN WHO HAD ALL THE LUCK at Greenock Arts Guild, for Scotsman Arts, 11.10.12
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Haunting Julia 3 stars ***
Remember You Are Beauty Full 4 stars ****
The Man Who Had All The Luck 4 stars ****

WHEN PEOPLE stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything. So argued G.K. Chesterton, three generations ago; and the sheer quantity of supernatural spookery in 21st century popular culture suggests he may have had a point.

So it’s perhaps a sign of the times that all three of this week’s shows contain hints of the supernatural, or of people’s attitudes to it. Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia – written in 1994, and now visiting Edinburgh in a new UK touring production – is a rare and slightly uneasy excursion into the ghost story genre from the greatest dramatist of late 20th century English suburban life.
The story begins when Joe Lukin, the devastated father of a brilliant young woman composer who has died 12 years earlier at the age of 19, brings her ex-boyfriend Andy to visit the museum he has created in her memory, in the house where she died.

The centrepiece of the building is a detailed reconstruction of the attic room in which Julia lived, worked, and died, apparently of an overdose of drink and pills; and as the two men talk in the strangely chilly room, the atmosphere becomes darker by the minute. They are joined by a third man, Ken, a working-class amateur psychic who knows more than he first reveals; and with Julia’s troubled spirit drawing nearer, the three work their way through a long night of monologues and shouting-matches, as Duncan Preston’s big, bullying, patriarchal Joe desperately seeks reasons for his loss, and Joe McFadden’s inwardly guilt-stricken Andy maintains a rigid rational scepticism about Julia’s possible presence.

There’s an interesting psychological study here of three men all unable – for different reasons – to let Julia go; hence the play’s odd title, which suggests that they haunt her, as much as she haunts them. The play is wordy, reflective, and sometimes slightly clumsy in shape, but delivered with great gusto, in an old-fashioned rep-theatre style. And if it’s never quite clear whether the explicit supernatural dimension of the story is necessary to trigger this portrait of unresolved grief and guilt, it certainly grips our attention; and keeps us in a sharp agony of suspense, for two tense, thoughtful and entertaining hours.

At Oran Mor, meanwhile, the heroine of actor/playwright Matthew McVarish’s lunchtime monologue Remember You Are Beauty Full is being spooked by a series of strange graffiti messages beside the lifts in the Glasgow tower-block where she lives. Alanah is 30 or so, and divorced from the man she loves, who left her because she cannot have children. She works in a family planning centre, trying to dissuade feckless teenage girls from getting pregnant; worse, her best friend is about to get married, in one of those giant weddings which requires Alanah – as chief bridesmaid – to spend hours every day fretting over ludicrous details of place-settings and cake decorations. And it’s at this moment that Alanah’s life begins to be brightened by a series of very personal loving messages on the wall; a line from her father’s speech at her wedding, her ex-husband’s pet name for her, a favourite saying of her dear long-dead granny.

The impulse behind the play – McVarish’s first for Oran Mor – is a slightly cheesy one, about negotiating a moment of crisis and finding a new life; its supernatural ending is a shade awkward, and I doubt whether a real-life Alanah would express herself in such a lurid stream of obscenities. McVarish succeeds, though, in creating a truly poignant and memorable central character, beautifully brought to life by Claire Knight; and her story is told in five perfectly-structured scenes, leading up to a single, unanswerable question: about why nice, loving people often end up so alone, and what on earth we can do about it – apart, of course, from believing in angels.

The question of belief in some supernatural power also becomes central, in the end, to Arthur Miller’s intriguing early play The Man Who Had All The Luck, first seen in New York in 1944, and now revived on tour across Scotland by Mull Theatre and Sell a Door. The play tells the story of David Beeves, a young man who, in troubled 1930’s America, seems unable to put a foot wrong. His garage business prospers, his girlfriend’s bullying father dies before he can forbid their marriage, and after some years of anxious childlessness, he becomes the father of a healthy baby son.

The only problem is that he is increasingly riddled with guilt over his good fortune, while his brother Amos’s dreams of fame as a baseball star crumble and fail; and in the end, he becomes almost insanely convinced that fate must have some terrible blow in store for him. It’s a strange story, full of the unprocessed emotions of Miller’s own family life. Yet David Hutchinson’s ambitious touring production – with a cast of nine actors and a substantial set, well handled – makes a fine job of exploring the play’s tension between the upbeat, individualist ethic of the American dream, and the more wary tragic consciousness of the old world. “That’s old thinking, not from here!” warns David’s friend Gus, when David expresses his fears; but Miller’s point seems to be that the old thinking – superstitious, fearful, vulnerable to fate – is written deep into the human psyche, and cannot be wiped out by simply shifting continents, and making a fresh start.

Haunting Julia at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and Remember You Are Beauty Full at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday. The Man Who Had All The Luck at Livingston tonight, Cumbernauld tomorrow, Perth Theatre on 23 October, and on tour until 9 November.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

Roars of applause, at Oran Mor this week, for Claire Knight’s outstanding performance in Matthew McVarish’s new monologue Remember You Are Beauty Full. The character is an ordinary figure in the Glasgow landscape, a single woman of 30 or so struggling with too many shopping-bags and too little hope. Yet Knight invests her with a such a range of suffering, tragi-comic, completely credible humanity, that the audience literally gasps with empathy at key turning-points her story. The play’s not complicated, and often quite rude; but in its own way – thanks to Knight’s glowing performance – it’s very nearly perfect.

ENDS ENDS

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