Shock or schlock? THE EXORCIST – West End ★★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Johnny FoxLeave a Comment

Phoenix Theatre, London – until 10 March 2018

It would be easy to dismiss a staged version of The Exorcist as ‘schlock’ but I had quite a good time re-visiting the movie that formed such an early impression in me.  I saw it in Switzerland, with German subtitles and what Regan shouts when pleasuring herself with the crucifix got stored in my memory and resurrected in moments of passion in Berlin, and Munich and recently the Frankfurt Airport Hilton.

It is a complicated logistical exercise to put on stage all the elements familiar from the film, and to deliver them with an authentic sense of menace.  Often it works, the bed shaking and 360-degree head rotation are very effective, but whereas in the film the fatally steep drop from the bedroom window could be shown on camera, here it has to be worked clumsily into John Pielmeier’s script.

Even though most of the ‘action’ takes place in Regan’s bedroom, the set needs to embrace Father Karras’s church and gym, a bar, a confessional, the house downstairs and Father Merrin’s archaeological dig in Iraq with Peter Bowles dragged up as something out of The Desert Song.  It’s sporadically effective, but the constant movement of black panels to mask off bits of the set and the attic doubling as Mesopotamia are distracting.  Sight lines from even just-off-centre in the Stalls are dreadful.  A lot of the time I was wondering whether it was legal to keep the emergency exit signs off during a performance to give the auditorium the requisite spooky darkness.

Do you have the right in the intimacy of a play to know more about the characters than their surface traits revealed by the film?  If Jenny Seagrove wrung her hands any more she’d be scrubbing up for surgery, although vocally and physically she’s convincing in the Ellen Burstyn role.  But we learn very little about either of them apart from some brief references to the mother’s work as a film actress, and less than nothing about Regan.  Father Karras’s deceased mother, who – when not sucking cocks in hell – haunts him so plaintively in the film, is reduced to a black-and-white 8mm home movie representation of the sort of elderly Greek woman who takes the money in your favourite Corfu taverna.

Adam Garcia is on form as Father Damian, wrestling nicely with the character’s own demons, but I still wonder why he set aside his Olivier-nominated hoofing career for straight plays – a question that arose when he played a dodgy bisexual rapist in Twilight Song at the Park last summer.  It seems a waste of an actor of the experience and seniority of Peter Bowles both to give him so few lines, and to have him arrive to perform an exorcism as if he’d just popped in to read the meter.

Clare Louise Connolly delivers an impressive performance as Regan, both in the naturalistic questioning of her mother, and immensely so in the demonic possession where her committed lip-synching to an uncredited Ian McKellen saves it from being too camp.

Without the apparatus of a film soundtrack, the atmospherics do a good job of putting you on edge, and even though the ‘shock’ moments are repeatedly achieved with loud bangs and a flash of blinding light in your eyes, you may still jump.

This movie is 44 years old, but as the stage production happily confirms – not dead yet.

 

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Johnny Fox
‘Johnny Fox’ studied Theatre at Lancaster University and Journalism at City before realising there was no money in either profession and concentrating instead on interior design for investment banks in Singapore, New York and Moscow. Back home, he now writes mostly about theatre, mostly in London, for arts and events websites. He blogs independently at www.johnnyfox.london.
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Johnny Fox on FacebookJohnny Fox on Twitter
Johnny Fox
‘Johnny Fox’ studied Theatre at Lancaster University and Journalism at City before realising there was no money in either profession and concentrating instead on interior design for investment banks in Singapore, New York and Moscow. Back home, he now writes mostly about theatre, mostly in London, for arts and events websites. He blogs independently at www.johnnyfox.london.