Saturday, 28 October 2017

Theatre review: The Exorcist

Just in time for Halloween, Sean Mathias brings to London what should be a surefire hit while everyone's looking for something spooky, although whether it can sustain that for the rest of its run to March will have to remain to be seen. John Pielmeier adapts William Peter Blatty's book - although William Friedkin's film is at least as much, if not more of an inspiration. Actress and single mother Chris (Jenny Seagrove) is put up in an old Georgetown house while on location for her latest film. Her daughter Regan (Clare Louise Connolly) has just celebrated her 12th birthday (give or take a couple of decades,) and her absent father has forgotten it for the second year running, so she's vulnerable to any father substitute who might be on offer. So when the disembodied voice of Gandalf starts talking to her in the attic she agrees to play a game with him - one which results in the demon "Captain Howdy" taking up residence in the girl's body and terrorising her family and friends.

Chris enlists priest/psychiatrist Father Damien Karras (Adam Garcia) to help; losing his faith, he tries to treat Regan as a patient, but despite being a sceptic Chris actually wants him to use religious means and exorcise the demon from her.

Mathias' production relies heavily on audience expectations, opening by plunging the auditorium into darkness and leaving us there silently for what seems like a long time before the action starts. It has the feel of ticking off the big moments everyone expects to see, and Ben Hart's illusions deliver mixed results: The famous head-spinning is done surprisingly well, and Regan cutting into her arm got a much bigger response than I would have expected such an old magic trick to get, but the vomiting of pea soup is disappointingly low-key. And I don't think anyone expected them to be able to recreate the spider-walk down the stairs, so basically bringing the lights up briefly on Connolly doing the pose only serves to higlight the fact that they can't do it properly - it just looks like we've walked in on Regan doing yoga.

In this run through iconic moments the show feels rather brisk if not downright rushed - Peter Bowles' Father Merrin is meant to have a past history with casting out Captain Howdy, but his role ends up being little more than a cameo so this is pretty much left hanging. It's also much to the expense of anything genuinely scary, either the literal or metaphorical idea of evil amongst us is unlikely to cause anyone to lose much sleep. Weirdly, the biggest running theme that came across to me was that this was an indictment of American healthcare: Both Chris and Damien are tortured by memories of loved ones who died due to poor healthcare, and blame themselves for not being able to afford better.

I'm not sure using Ian McKellen's voice as the demon is a good idea either; he's just too recognisable, and being reminded every time the demon speaks that it's a pre-recording of a beloved theatrical knight hardly keeps you in the moment. The best work is being done here by Anna Fleischle's set in collaboration with Jon Driscoll & Gemma Carrington's projections, which together with Adam Cork's sound design make for a good few moments to make you jump. It's jumps rather than real scares though - hitting just about the right level of camp, this Exorcist is fun, but not scary fun.

The Exorcist by John Pielmeier, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, is booking until the 10th of March at the Phoenix Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Robert Day.

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