Versatile TV and stage actor, Joe McFadden returns to the Norwich stage to star in the Alan Ayckbourn chiller Haunting Julia. JOHN BULTITUDE finds out more about the revival guaranteed to make you jump.

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With its chilling themes of loss, grief and the supernatural sprinkled with a touch of Northern wit, Haunting Julia is guaranteed to get the heart pumping and the nerves jangling when it make a winter visit to Norwich as part of a UK tour.

The play is packed with suspense and follows a father’s search for answers about the sudden death of his daughter Julia. A child prodigy, she is composing symphonies at the age of eight earning her the title Little Miss Mozart from a predatory media.

Eleven years later, she is found dead after apparently committing suicide but is that what really happened, or is there more to it?

Alan Ayckbourn’s play picks up these themes as her tortured father Joe, played by accomplished stage and TV actor Duncan Preston, tries to find some answers after opening a music learning centre as a shrine to his daughter.

Enter Joe McFadden who plays Andy Rollinson, a former boyfriend of Julia and a very uptight almost mysterious character. Chatting to him after seeing the production, the performance is so mesmerising that you expect a very serious chat with little humour.

Instead, he emerges post-show from the Green Room at the tour’s opening venue in Colchester clutching a cuppa, twinkling with energy and eager to talk about his character.

“The thing about Ayckbourn’s writing is that, at the beginning, it isn’t obvious who the characters are,” he says. “He just gives you little snippets about Andy — how he has a wife, is in an unhappy marriage and has these kids who are troubled.

“Throughout the play, you get little hints about who he is and I think that is such good writing because it means the audience really have to tune in to see who the people are. As an actor, he doesn’t make it terribly easy for you and you have to look for the clues as to who they are.”

His character Andy knew Julia when they were both students in the lead-up to her death and more details about their relationship emerge as the play continues. “I really feel like the events 12 years ago have made these characters stall a little bit in their lives and they can’t move on. Andy has this unhappy life and I think it all stems from what happened to Julia,” said Joe.

“I think he, more than anyone, needs everything to come out and for there to be a healing. He has very much put the past to the back of his mind, tried to forget about it and it has obviously not worked.”

He is also almost everyone’s eyes and ears as Haunting Julia unfolds trying to unpick the secrets of Julia’s past with her father, and a medium, played by highly experienced actor Richard O’Callaghan.

“He is like everyone watching because he doesn’t know what he is walking into when he walks into the centre. He is the eyes of the audience which is good,” explained Joe.

The play has already won strong praise from the critics both for its performance and the power of Ayckbourn’s writing which mixes some heavy themes with that characteristic wit of the writer.

Joe said: “Technically it is very, very difficult but then the best plays are. The language is very hard to get a grasp on, but then once you do, it is fantastic, but Ayckbourn likes his language which is good. It is good to have a challenge as an actor.

“He is such a great craftsman as a writer so that when there is real tension, he will just put in a gag to lighten it. I think people appreciate the laughs all the more because it is a very serious and dark play and those laughs are needed.”

And it is this mix together with a very multi-layered script that convinced Joe to say yes to starring in the production.

“On the face of it, it seems like a ghost story and I very much thought it was. When I got into rehearsals, I realised the character is quite dark and has all these quirks. It’s interesting to play. Every day I do it, I am getting new things and hearing new lines. It is great writing and that is really all you hope for as an actor - to have something that is good to play,” said Joe.

And audiences are enjoying the piece with glowing reviews and a couple of moments guaranteed to make them jump. Joe said: “They seem to be on tenterhooks. The audience are so tuned into it and they really get the jumps. They are really frightened in sections and it is great as an actor to have that power over them, and to really scare them.”

It is the latest project for Joe who calls himself a “jack of all trades” because of the range of acting work he has taken on over the years.

He may be best known for playing policeman Joe Mason in ITV’s long-running Sunday night hit Heartbeat – set and filmed close to Ayckbourn country in Scarborough - but he has a lot more strings to his bow than that.

He has taken on a host of small-screen roles including Dr Jack Marshland in popular period drama Cranford, Prentice McHoan in the critically-acclaimed The Crow Road, and even played the long-running role of sinister hospital patient Alistair in Casualty.

But his versatility also extends to the stage where his previous parts range from Ed Reiss in the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Torch Song Trilogy and The Young Writer in the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Missing to Caractacus Potts in the Edinburgh Playhouse production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the title role in Sir Ian McKellen’s Aladdin at the Old Vic.

And Joe said he approaches each acting project on its merits. “I am lucky I get to sing now and again and I get to do some nice theatre. I make a decision based on whether there is a nice script and what potential it has. That is what I saw with Haunting Julia. That is what I saw with Haunting Julia. Knowing that Richard O’Callaghan and Duncan Preston were also doing it helped to make it attractive.”

As we chat, the play is heading off on tour, which is a first for Joe. “I have never toured before. I am looking forward to it. That is the brilliant thing about being an actor. You get to go to places that you never would have normally gone and being there for a week is just about the right amount of time to explore somewhere,” he said.

This won’t be his first visit to Norfolk. He was last here shooting scenes for the 1998 movie Dad Savage, which also starred Patrick Stewart. “I remember we filmed around Cromer and King’s Lynn. Norfolk is a very beautiful part of the country and I am looking forward to discovering more of it.”

And he is promising audiences at Norwich Theatre Royal are in for a scary night when Haunting Julia takes to the stage. With a cheeky twinkle in his eye, he said: “They are in for a real scare. If they are scared, we are doing our job properly.”

■ Haunting Julia, Norwich Theatre Royal, November 5-10, £23-£5.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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