Review: The Exorcist on stage

The iconic movie may have had audiences whipped into a frenzy, but does the stage show have the same effect? 

Arguably, I was never qualified to head to The Phoenix Theatre in order to review their temporary production of “The Exorcist” in the first place, having never fully seen the infamous 1973 horror flick by William Friedkin. The film that, based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, had audience members fainting, vomiting and some even believing that they had been possessed by its demonic antagonist. While my reaction to the stage show was not quite so dramatic, it wasn’t far off.

With the film being received in the way it was, one can imagine the tall order it is to reproduce such an iconic, controversial story on stage in front of a live audience. So much less can be achieved without technologies such as CGI and clever cinematography to rely upon. But allow me to tell you first hand that John Pielmeier’s adaptation manages it, and manages it pretty well at that. What cannot be achieved by advanced technology is replaced by even spookier illusions, special effects and some pretty terrific acting.

#theexorcist #williamfriedkin #1973film #cinemaxerspodcast

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The play largely remains faithful to the movie: it follows the story of twelve-year-old Regan (Clare Louise Connolly) who, upon moving to a new house to accommodate her actress mother’s career, finds that she is not as lonely in this new, empty house as she first thought. Like the movie, when Regan begins acting strangely, shrieking in the night, swearing like a sailor and publicly urinating, her anxious mother (Jenny Seagrove) calls upon the church for help: help that comes in the form of doubting priest Father Karras (Adam Garcia) and experienced exorcist Father Merrin (Peter Bowles). Many deliberations lead them to the conclusion that Regan is neither schizophrenic nor suffering from a lesion on the brain but is in fact possessed by a demonic spirit, voiced by the remarkable Sir Ian McKellen (goodbye Gandalf!). This all boils down to a pretty graphic exorcism scene which is as fast-paced as it is disturbing.

Without giving any spoilers, the stage adaptation maintains the most iconic moments of the film (think levitation, bed shaking, projectile vomiting and head rotating, even managing to slip in a brief segment of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells from the original motion picture soundtrack). Frequent blackouts and flashing lights, which I was sure would become very old very quickly, managed to frighten the life out of me every time they occurred. The play is comparatively short and moves quickly, if somewhat jaggedly, from one scene to the next. But if its aim is to disturb, then it certainly achieved it.

It is hard to rate a play for others who have not seen it, on the basis that when we go to the theatre we are all going for different reasons and to experience different things. This being said, it is hard to imagine any objective of The Exorcist straying too far from the basic “to be scary”, in which case it achieved its objective to the highest degree. Did I enjoy “The Exorcist”? No. But is it a play to be enjoyed, or rather to be marvelled at (in my case from behind my jacket, which I pulled up over my nose for protection. Demons are afraid of jackets, didn’t you know?). To tell you the truth, I was very close to leaving during the interval, something which I have never done before, but not because of bad acting or dodgy effects- of which there were certainly none- but because I felt so profoundly disturbed that I wasn’t sure if I could make it through the second half. But make it I did, behind my jacket admittedly, but hey.

"The Exorcist" at the Phoenix Theatre. What a schizophrenic play this is! Personality #1 completely embodies the spirit of the book. This is a story about guilt, how it makes us hate ourselves so much we believe ourselves to be unworthy of God's love. That despair is the fall from grace that the Devil desires. The book, and this play when at it's best, reminds us to always carry hope, respect and love in our hearts. Personality #2 caters to another crowd, who manage to get a few more drinks in because of the 8pm start. They revel in the flashing lights and sounds of thunder, "ooooh" with shock at the action and language, headturning, vomiting and on-screen urination. Overall I really enjoyed the Exorcist and recommend it be seen by fans of the genre. A couple of the characters didn't work for me. The script is a bit light, not giving any room for depth or characterisation. The end doesn't work – the exorcism and final conflict has no drama or power to it. But the acting was very good all round, especially Sir Ian McKellan as the voice of the devil, with the young girl physically acting to it. The stage and lighting were brilliant, creating a creepy atmosphere, and many locations and spaces – completely put me in that house. During the bow tonight Jenny Seagrove seemed fed up. From my point of view she had every reason to be a lot more proud of the play she is involved with.

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I should probably mention that I am not a squeamish scaredy cat. I love horror movies and am never disturbed by any of them beyond perhaps closing the curtains when it gets dark outside (faces at windows are never not scary). But “The Exorcist” made me a feel a way that I have never felt before; admittedly this was not a “nice” feeling (hence the three stars), but I cannot deny its power in causing me to recoil like a mouse from a cat. For this reason, I would highly recommend “The Exorcist” to anyone with a strong enough stomach and nerves of steel.

The Exorcist is playing at The Phoenix Theatre until March 10th. Tickets available here: https://phoenix.londontheatres.co.uk/

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