By Peter May
It’s one of the most respected horror films of all time and one of the most successful too. Originally released in 1973, The Exorcist has rarely been bettered in the following 44 years in terms of terror but can those thrills and chills translate to the stage?
The answer is a resounding yes.
From the moment a packed audience is quickly silenced as the play begins, with a loud bang and the theatre plunged into pitch darkness, the atmosphere intensifies. This adapted stage play is more faithful to the novel by William Peter Blatty rather than the film but all of the memorable moments remain intact.
Starting out in a domesticated setting the tension grows through the first half as young Regan develops strange symptoms. Excellent use is made of lighting, sound and projections on the walls, and an inventive use of the snug stage built around different rooms to resemble a house. Between each scene your eyes will dart around each corner of the stage as the action develops.
We are promised “adult material which may shock and offend” and that’s definitely the case, with lots of swearing and sexual references, disturbing when they come from what is supposed to be a 10-year-old girl.
When the medical profession fails to provide answers, Regan’s desperate mother Chris turns to a local priest – Adam Garcia as Father Damien – for help. Alongside Garcia, there is an impressive cast. Jenny Seagrove plays the mother of the possessed child and Peter Bowles takes the role of Father Merrin, who’s silhouetted arrival is one of the films defining images on the posters. Clare Louise Connolly as the devil child is actually in her 20s but does a remarkable job of playing Regan.
A few people could only provide the demon’s deep, sonorous voice, by turns flirtatiously amusing and outrageously evil, so all credit to the production for securing Sir Ian McKellen. He’s perfect in the vocal role.
But it is compelling, disturbing, unnerving and a good piece of theatre which you won’t forget in a hurry.
Though the limitations of performance may be stretched with 360-degree head spinning and projectile vomiting, it’s astounding how sound and lighting effects can create terror and tension within the confines of an auditorium.
The Exorcist runs at the Phoenix Theatre in London until March 10, 2018.