Phoenix Theatre, London
27 October 2017
The Exorcist was the first 18 certificate film that I saw when I was under age. The thrill of getting into the cinema to see a film that some parts of Britain had banned was almost as exciting as seeing the horror unfold on screen. For many of my generation, it’s an iconic film that seemed tame when viewed on DVD many decades later. Regan is twelve when the devil possesses her, and eventually an exorcist, Father Merrin, is called in for one final battle for the soul of the devil. It was the portrayal of a 12 year old that disturbed, and to a certain extent, still does. So how will it shape up on stage?
The short answer depends on whether you’re prepared to be scared or not. The sudden blackout and scream certainly supplies shock tactics from the start, but being blinded by spotlights as another scene change and illusion is set up soon becomes tedious. Playwright John Pielmeir has returned to the book to adapt the play, and his script is an essay in exposition. It’s chunkily literal, and if you didn’t know the story, there’s plenty of clues as to what is to come; when Father Merrin clutches his heart and says, “It’s only a heart murmur”, you know the evening isn’t going to end well for him. The play takes an age to get going, with most memorable images from the film in place, the vomiting, head spinning and levitation, being executed with various stages of success. Another huge problem is that the devil is voiced by wonderful Sir Ian McKellan, a voice loaded with differing meanings for so many people. To hear Gandalf spew out the expletives and sexual acts through Regan’s mouth is absolutely hilarious. But in many ways, his is the best performance.
Whether we believe in the devil and Christ, or the magic of theatre, what we see on the stage is secondary to the fact that the actors have to believe in it. Jenny Seagrove gives a passionate performance as Regan’s mother, Chris, holding the play together in places with conviction and energy. Clare Louise Connolly is convincing at portraying Regan’s transformation from sweet child to devil possessed teenager. But the normally good Adam Garcia lacks conviction as Father Karras, consumed by guilt over his mother’s death, and his performance is wooden, he seems anxious to get through the play. Peter Bowles as Father Merrin gives a perfectly serviceable performance, but it feels as f they all know they will play second fiddle to the reputation and special effects of the material. It’s a hideous stereotype, but Tristram Wymark’s turn as camp, gay, alcoholic film director Burke ,provides some good, intentional comedy.
The script remains rooted in 1973, hints that Regan may have been abused, or that Father Karras has to confront Regan to tackle his personal demons over neglecting his mother, are brushed aside. At 1 hour 40 minutes with no interval, it’s also quite a traditional, old fashioned play, taking time to deliver the final twenty minutes of exorcism. I found this quite a tricky show to rate. It certainly does not get anywhere near to the high quality of some plays currently on in the West End, yet it also misses the category of “so bad it’s good”, it fails to be a Fabulous Flop that people will whisper about in years to come. If you go prepared to be scared, like the audience members who got their feet at the curtain call, you will be, and if, like the woman being helped out of the theatre because she was still laughing hysterically at the Devil, you go to be entertained, then you will be. I’ve a feeling that my view won’t matter much, as the show will find an audience. After all, it’s better the Devil you know.