After the iconic horror film spooked Pa Lee back in the 70s, I decided he would be my perfect plus one to this pre-Halloween performance of The Exorcist at the Alexandra Theatre. But would this stage version still send shivers down the spine?
In 1973, the movie shocked cinema-goers around the world with its depiction of a 12 year old girl, Regan, seemingly possessed by the devil. Who can forget Regan’s bulbous eyes, revolving head and projectile vomiting? When doctors fail to help, her desperate mother Chris (Sophie Ward) reluctantly turns to more spiritual means and recruits the help of neighbourhood priest Father Damien (Ben Caplan). Except this bonkers behaviour is beyond Damien’s priesting capacity so he calls in exorcism guru Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas, of Just Good Friends fame).
46 years on (yes readers, The Exorcist is older than A Brummie Home and Abroad) and the story has been revived for the stage. Today’s audience is less likely to vomit, faint or run screaming for the exit. But this production manages to invite the audience into its dark and brooding set, and it almost seems like there is a malevolence amongst us. A shadowy figure seen from the corner of my eye. I hear screams, seemingly coming from the rafters of the auditorium. Hairs raise on the back of my neck, and I’m powerless to stop a slight shiver. Make sure you’re seated a couple of minutes before curtain up. And you’re not holding a drink.
You know that Regan’s fate is sealed as soon as she starts playing with a Ouija board in a creaky old house.
Nicholas, Caplan and Ward bring this Bill Kenwright production to spine-chilling life. Susannah Edgeley perfectly portrays the vulnerable young girl turned tormented demon (although the actress – understandably – is not a twelve year old girl), and Trystan Wymark provides a little comic relief as film director Burke Dennis. The demon himself is voiced by Sir Ian McKellen. A seductive, menacing, cursing Gandalf if you will. Edgeley’s metamorphosis is impressive, and exhausting to watch at times. Her lip-synching to McKellen’s pre-recording is flawless.
It’s a fresh production, but many of the memorable set-pieces from the film are still there. The profanities. The spinning head. The crucifix masturbation. I never thought I’d spout that phrase on this blog. No spider crawl across the ceiling though – maybe they couldn’t get that one past Health & Safety.
The discordant score by Adam Cork works well to keep the audience on edge, as does clever use of lighting by Phillip Gladwell. Not many shows have their own “illusions designer” but Ben Hart ensures that the special effects are mind-blowing. The dimly-lit staging is impressive, with a split-level American gothic design by Anna Fleischle.
There’s a lack of tension at times though and the possession occasionally seems more of a comic than a dramatic turn. The story seems a little rushed occasionally, as if the 100 minute run time isn’t long enough. But it’s entertaining enough to provide a chilling thrill – or a thrilling chill – on this October evening.
Production Images by Pamela Raith Photography