Phoenix Theatre, London – until 10 March 2018
Guest reviewer: Sarah Cox
With Stage Review’s editor, Anne Cox, still too traumatised from seeing the film as a teenager more than 40 years ago (yes, it’s true – ed), I was packed off, with nerves of steel and crucifix in pocket, into the pitch-black, creaking, dress circle of London’s Phoenix Theatre for The Exorcist.
It started well, with creepy, religious-sounding whispering, echoing around as we entered, then a sudden crash to darkness prompting some very loud screams and curses from the audience. Unfortunately, those first few seconds were the scariest moments in the entire show.
Over just ninety minutes, this production tears through the plot, condensing every iconic, genre-defining horror from the film or book in a manner so rushed you barely notice them happening. The head-spinning was extremely clever, but blink and you’d have missed it, and the projectile vomiting just doesn’t go far enough. I’ve seen more impressive spews out on a Saturday night.
As the programme points out, The Exorcist was not a film reliant on big jumpy moments. Unlike so many horror-by-numbers movies these days, ghosts and monsters didn’t leap out suddenly from closets. This cheap and easy style of scare is also absent from the play, but there’s no build-up of tension either, no intensity, no suspense, and no real climax. It makes for an alright production staged on fast forward mode. As a result, it isn’t even slightly eerie, let alone terrifying enough to haunt you for decades.
The film was over two hours long, the novel also chunky, so why is this all so rushed and abridged? An extra half an hour, a few seconds or minutes here and there, for both character development and making the most of what are some generally rather excellent and mind-boggling special effects (see aforementioned head twist), would have made this significantly better.
If you’re unfamiliar with the original, the story can be succinctly summarised thus: Young Regan plays with Ouija board, gets possessed by some sort of supernatural demon, and then priests try to cure her. Adam Garcia’s priest, Father Damien Karras, has recently lost his mother, Regan’s mum Chris (Jenny Seagrove) is a stressed actress with a secret, and Chris’s boss (Tristram Wymark, who gets a few laughs with his nudge, nudge-wink, wink, textbook, stock, gay, louche, movie director schtick) has a drinking problem. None of these three things really registers or goes anywhere, given the scant few seconds they’re aired. There’s no time for character and plot development.
But the real problem for me here was Sir Ian McKellen – and wow, I never thought I’d write that in a theatre review. As the voice of the demon possessing young Regan he’s got the lion’s share of the lines but he’s just far too… Ian McKellen. The voice is instantly recognisable, of course, and he plays it more pervy-uncle than terrifying devil, mocking and joking, and far too quiet in places. There are more stifled giggles from the audience than chills down the spine. He’s entertaining, yes, but not even slightly frightening.
Adult actor Clare Louise Connolly puts in a pretty faultless performance and is very convincing as the 12-year-old Regan. She spends much of the play chained to a bed while miming to McKellen’s voice and growing increasingly more ghoulish. I spent half the play staring at the staircase hoping they’d figure out a way to get her safely down it backwards on all-fours, but alas, there are certain things that can only work on screen.
It’s still pretty disturbing to see a kid masturbate with a crucifix and say filthy things, but nowhere near as shocking as I imagine it was back in the day, when the film caused fainting, hysteria and the video got a decade-long ban. We’ve seen and heard it all now.
The devil’s in the detail, and a friend at opening night noted the visibility of a ‘puke tube’, a pole used to push a drawer out of a cupboard, and stage hands moving things about, yet had a poor view of the show’s impressive projections.
But from up in the cheap seats, I was very impressed with the physical effects and audio visuals (SFX by illusion designer, Ben Hart and projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington) – the stars in an otherwise disappointing production.