Theatre review – The Exorcist The Phoenix Theatre, London

It’s 7.45 on a Saturday night and my partner and I want to see a West End show. Any West End show as long as it starts at 8pm.

We’ve missed the array of musicals which started 15 minutes ago, so the clock is ticking.

Thankfully we get cut price tickets for The Exorcist, writer John Pielmeier’s new stage adaptation of William Friedkin’s blockbuster which chilled millions back in 1973.

I first saw it 30 years ago on VHS, a week before it was temporarily banned. Home alone, the power cut out. I was a little terrified, and by the end of the movie, knew I wasn’t desperate to see it again.

So, 30 years later, and another power cut at home apparently. What goes around comes around as we settle into the Phoenix Theatre for 100 minutes of drama.

“How scary can it be?” I wonder, expecting all the notorious scenes and dialogue to have been toned down. “It’s theatre. It’ll be more like Carry On Screaming than one of the scariest films ever made”.

How wrong am I?

The stage is essentially divided into three sections: an attic/desert area; a bedroom and a hallway/living room area. The design is terrific, and the visual effects often brilliant.

The whole thing is so snappily directed by Sean Mathias that there’s barely chance to take stock of what happened before the action moves on. This is an Exorcist for the attention deficit disorder generation, and given how physically uncomfortable I am (typically small West End seats), I don’t mind a bit. There’s no interval, so the tension builds to often unbearable levels.

Thankfully inbetween the coughing theatregoers and flashes of light from a badly concealed doorway, we get a chance to soak up the tale of actress Chris MacNeil, her possessed daughter Regan, and Father Karras, a young priest’s battle with faith over the loss of his mother.

Jenny Seagrove is superb as the understandably troubled mum; Coyote Ugly’s Adam Garcia makes a good stab as Father Karras, and stealing the show is Claire Louise Connolly as Regan and Ian McKellen as the voice of the Devil. Watching Regan chained to a bed while channelling his flamboyant, seductive foul mouthed demon is one of the most disturbing things I’ve experienced. Lurching from tiny moments of comedy to full on horror, the play gets under your skin, and when things get really nasty towards the end, I’m struck with that sense of guilt. Terrible things are about to happen on stage and I’m doing nothing to stop it. When you’re that immersed in a drama, the cast and crew’s work is done.

Peter Bowles gives a fine turn as Father Merrin, the yin to Old Nick’s fearsome yang. He’s barely in the show, yet I spend most of the duration desperate for his arrival.

Things reach an explosive conclusion and the curtain drops. I realise I’ve been sat with my arms tightly folded for a while, like some self imposed strait jacket.

As the cast assemble for their bow, it’s clear seasoned pros like Peter Bowles and Jenny Seagrove are grateful for the reception but well aware of how soul shattering the power of the material is.

Carry on Screaming it definitely isn’t.

There’s dialogue and suggestions here which are so disturbing, I’m not surprised there’s a few gasps in the audience.

One of the many men who should also have taken a bow is illusion designer Ben Hart. His head-spinning effect and assorted shifting shadows alone are stunning.

The Exorcist on stage is as powerful as the movie which spawned it in 1973, and though I’m not in a rush to see it again, it’ll be a while before I see anything this powerful again in the West End or closer to home in Yorkshire. Unless of course it goes on tour and scares punters stupid in this neck of the woods.

Ends

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