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The Exorcist review at Phoenix Theatre, London – ‘crass and schlocky’

Adam Garcia, Clare Louise Connolly, and Peter Bowles in The Exorcist at Phoenix Theatre, London. Photo: Robert Day Adam Garcia, Clare Louise Connolly, and Peter Bowles in The Exorcist at Phoenix Theatre, London. Photo: Robert Day

Even if you don’t subscribe to film critic Mark Kermode’s view that The Exorcist is a cinematic masterpiece, its power to disturb and unsettle is undeniable. Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel, William Friedkin’s 1973 film created controversy on its release. There were numerous reports of people fainting and, while it was never officially banned on video, it was only passed by the BBFC in 1999.

The existence of this Bill Kenwright-produced stage version, which first surfaced at Birmingham Repertory Theatre last year, raises a number of questions. How will it negotiate the problematic use of a young woman’s body as a battleground for a clash between the forces of good and evil? How will it replicate the film’s iconic effects? How will it handle its most graphic scenes? The answer to all of these is: not well. Not well at all.

Regan, the 12-year-old daughter of Chris MacNeil, a famous American actress, begins to display strange behaviour. She says ominous things to her mother’s friends and urinates on the floor. At first, Chris searches for physical and psychological causes, but as Regan’s behaviour becomes more violent and inexplicable, Chris consults a priest, the sensitive and scientifically-minded Father Karras.

John Pielmeier’s adaptation shaves 20 minutes of the running time of the film, condensing events and ditching a number of key scenes.

Director Sean Mathias has convinced Ian McKellen to provide the voice the demon. While McKellen clearly had a ripe old time recording his lines, his performance strikes a very different note to the whisky-and-nicotine growl of Mercedes McCambridge in the film. It makes the possessed Regan sound like a potty-mouthed Gandalf.

The demon is also much better behaved here. Instead of hurling furniture, it upsets a single drawer. Regan, almost demurely, spews vomit to the side the bed to which she is lashed instead of unleashing a geyser of pea soup into Karras’ face; there’s no spider-walk and the levitation scene is abandoned altogether. Budgetary issues afflict the whole production. The famous, fatal staircase is another notable absence (along with the surely crucial “can you help an old altar boy” line) and a sight line obliterating black screen covers parts of Anna Fleischle’s set during scene changes.

Adam Cork’s sound design is reasonably effective and Adam Garcia does a decent job of portraying the conflicted, bereaved Karras; Jenny Seagrove looks suitably distraught as Regan’s mother, and Clare Louise Connolly impresses in the demanding role of Regan, writhing, snarling and spitting.

But, unforgivably, Mathias fudges the exorcism scene, sucking all the tension, terror and demonic polyphony out of it. Peter Bowles’ Father Merrin gives the sweary devil a bit of a telling off, which pretty much does the trick, then Pielmeier chucks in a bit where the possessed Karras is told to rape Regan with a crucifix, that seems misjudged on many levels.

While the production delivers a couple of serviceable jump-scares, it fails to capture what made the original so visceral and, well, compelling.

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Crass, camp and schlocky staging of a classic of horror cinema