Forty-five years after William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel terrified an entire generation, The Exorcist has been unleashed onto London’s West End stage for the very first time in a theatrical experience directed by Sean Mathias and adapted for the stage by John Pielmeier.
The movie, which was released in cinemas back in 1973, is without a doubt one of the scariest movies of all time, and sparked unprecedented worldwide controversy. As the winner of two Academy Awards, William Friedkin’s powerful and disturbing work saw audiences petrified to the point of passing out and went on to become one of the top ten highest grossing films of all time.
Mention this memorable supernatural flick in conversation, and chances are you won’t finish the chat without a reference to head spinning, projectile vomit, or crucifixes being shoved where the sun doesn’t shine. French and Saunders would also more than likely get a namecheck.
As with any theatre interpretation or movie remake, the adaptation will always draw comparisons to the well known and much loved original which, for this particular West End production, is a bit unfortunate, because there is enough in Pielmeier’s creepy spectacle to stand on its own merits.
Adam Cork’s sound design genuinely adds to the atmosphere, offering some fun to the experience, which clearly wasn’t quite the same previously. Despite the movie taking a bit of time to build the story, the theatre show delivers from the offset with an almighty thunder crash, plunging us into complete darkness. Agitated audience members roar with laughter, comforting their friends with nervous chatter.
Philip Gladwell’s lighting techniques make it easy to become submerged in the storyline. The overall set design is also smart and attractive. The stage represents a house with many rooms as the set for all of the action. During scene changes, unused rooms are often blacked out to such an extent that you don’t see what’s happening elsewhere, making things seem more oppressive when the tiny areas are highlighted.
There are, of course, striking similarities to Friedkin’s movie. Jenny Seagrove is perfectly cast as actress Chris MacNeil who is living on location with her 12-year-old daughter Regan (played by Clare Louise Connolly). Within the first ten minutes we see Regan contacting a supposedly imaginary friend whom she calls Captain Howdy after playing with a Ouija board.
Every nuance of Seagrove’s performance is reminiscent of Ellen Burstyn’s terrific performance in the movie; her nervy talk, her erratic behaviour, and her slender look – which comes across as chic even when she crashes on her armchair in her nightgown.
When Regan begins acting strangely – making mysterious noises, constantly using obscene language, and exhibiting abnormal strength – things start to become a serious problem for Chris. After a bizarre carpet-wetting scene (yep, it was included!), Regan’s bed begins to shake violently, adding further to her mother’s horror. Chris then consults a number of physicians, but they find nothing physiologically wrong with her daughter, despite Regan undergoing a battery of diagnostic tests.
Credit must go to Clare Louise Connolly as Regan, who not only grapples the physical elements of the possessed young girl but the importance of her dialogue timing, which is crucial when Ian McKellen is providing the pre-recorded voice of her demon tormentor. No pressure! We see Regan with her arms outstretched, writhing and snarling like it’s a ballet-inspired dance routine, choreographed to precision.
One of my main concerns with this theatre adaptation was the decision to cast Ian McKellen as the voice of the demon. Casting aside the knowledge of his obvious skills, I was apprehensive about his unmistakable voice not sitting well with the evil he was to deliver. Would he be scary enough? The answer is yes, but probably not in the way you would expect.
Admittedly, McKellen’s Captain Howdy is not the same demon that the gravelly-voiced Mercedes McCambridge mastered so brilliantly in the film. But what made Director Sean Mathias’s decision so astute is that McKellen gives his character’s power a leering, lecherous quality, which is quite chilling to listen to.
“I want to touch you,” whispers McKellen in his well-spoken, very British tones. “Go on, let me touch you.”
Whilst the movie version is certainly a slow-burner, it did feature the product of logistically nightmarish skills of technical wizardry, which would be a red flag to any theatre producer contemplating the idea of transferring them to the stage.
I was hoping that Mathias would have actually ditched the infamous head-spinning moment altogether as it's an obvious illusion to nitpick. He doesn't; yet despite the illusion being cleverly done, it is bound to disappoint those who wanted the see something akin to the technique in the 70's shocker (which, if we're brutally honest, still looks like a dummy's head on a spinning pole). Regan's make-up is also kept to a minimum, so you never get the true grotesque, visual disfigurement of Linda Blair's character. I'll spare you my thoughts on the state of that wig, too.
The famous projectile vomit scene also looks a little tame, with Regan listlessly shooting out vomit to the side of the bed and down the backdrop, like it was an afterthought. But then I can't really see how else they could have made it work.
Although it courageously adopts some relatively complex technical procedures, the stage adaptation of The Exorcist is less about special effects and more about mood and human responses.
Adam Garcia is solid as the conflicted, bereaved Karras, and Peter Bowles is fine as Father Merrin, particularly when his figure is seen in silhouette and walking down the street, in a respectful nod to the iconic artwork on the movie poster. Mike Oldfield's memorable 'Tubular Bells' theme is also played out as the curtain comes down, which sends shivers down the spine.
As a stage show, The Exorcist is both unique and similar to the movie in equal parts. Whilst it might lack the threat and dynamism of Friedkin's shockfest, it does a really sterling job of getting under the skin.
• The Exorcist is running at The Pheonix Theatre
Did you like Under The Skin? Read Phil's review of the live orchestra screening.