This stage version of ‘The Exorcist’ is billed as a fresh adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror novel. But lovers of the blockbuster 1973 film shouldn’t panic – it is, to all intents and purposes, a replica of the movie and its set-pieces, condensed into a tight, FX-heavy 100 mins.
Accepting that it’s basically a story about Satanic child abuse, it’s all quite enjoyable, and Sean Mathias’s production is an undoubted technical triumph. It’s not exactly terrifying – the story has been absorbed by pop culture – but there’s enough nifty use of light and makeup and illusion, and things appearing in the dark, to guarantee a few scares for even a jaded audience. Not that the audience seemed jaded: with an 8pm start time, the Monday night crowd I saw it with were agreeably lively (ie they’d been to the pub) and clearly up for a scare.
In case you’re somehow unaware, the plot basically runs thusly: a young girl, Regan (Clare Louise Connolly, solid), is possessed by a supernatural entity, who may or may not be the Devil himself. Her increasingly unnerving behaviour prompts her mother Chris (Jenny Seagrove, whiny) to call in hot young neighbourhood priest Father Damien Karras (Adam Garcia, fiery), who in turn escalates things with management and summons the titular demon-banisher Father Lankester Merrin (a dignified Peter Bowles).
All your favourite bits from the film make it in: spinning head, vomiting, creepy sexual swearing; there’s even a snatch of Mike Oldfield’s iconic theme at the curtain call. It is all very technically accomplished, and boasts one absolutely stupendous turn: Ian McKellen’s pre-recorded voiceover as the demon is genuinely sensational, with its seductive, even comforting tone, lightly tinged with fathoms-deep menace. It’s the one area in which you’d say the play exceeds the film it’s clearly indebted to.
And that’s my basic problem with ‘The Exorcist’– everything about this show feels subservient to the film. Clearly there’s an audience up for that, but I’d have loved to see a freer adaptation that could surprise as well as shock. This version was adapted by minor US playwright John Pielmeier and originally premiered in LA in 2012, in a production starring Brooke Shields, and it feels like an efficient transposition of the film but little more. Even the cast’s US accents feel frustrating – it would have been ten minutes’ work to tweak the script to set it in the UK, diminish the air of staginess and at least do something to differentiate it from the parent feature.
Still, it knows what it wants to be: it’s a piece of entertainment as much as a play, perfectly suited to twenty-first-century attention spans as it rattles out half an hour shorter than the film. There is real craft here – particularly from McKellen – and populism can be a seriously underrated virtue in the theatre. But it feels haunted by the spectre of the braver production that might have been.