When the film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s supposedly fact-based novel about demonic possession opened in 1973, a kind of hysteria swept the world. There were reports of people having to be carried from cinemas, audience members vomiting, and religious groups picketed cinema queues warning of the dangers within.
Producer Bill Kenwright would no doubt sell his soul for that sort of free publicity for this stage version. But although the play has been given an over-18 warning to help ramp up the hype, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is one massive damp squip of a production; short on scares and saddled with periods of turgid dialogue and flat performances that sap any tension.
Having discovered a Ouija board in the attic of the house she shares with a her single mother Chris (Jenny Seagrove), young Regan (Clare Louise Connolly) inadvertently summons up the Devil himself — voiced by Ian McKellen who has wisely taken the cash without having to show up every night. For some reason, young Regan doesn’t seem too fazed by a disembodied voice asking to touch her.
From then on the youngster undergoes a rapid physical deterioration and displays increasingly bizarre and disturbing behaviour, topped by offing the babysitter while Mum is out.
With medical boffins baffled, Chris turns to priest Damien Karras (Adam Garcia). Karras has issues of his own, however, as he struggles with his faith following the recent death of his mother, who pops up now and again for the odd tormented word. It’s Karras who decides Regan has been possessed and persuades the bishop to call in Father Merrin (Peter Bowles) a man with some form in the whole exorcism game.
In the programme notes, author John Pielmeir says that he has adapted the novel, not the film. But if you’ve seen the movie, all the scenes that make it one of the most notorious horrors of all time are present.
Ben Hart’s illusions just about pass muster, but are not anything special for a sophisticated modern audience. There are no boundaries being broken here and this sort of thing was being done in Victorian magic shows. Sling in some smoke. Smoke is spooky, right? The only jump moments come from the occasional loud bang inserted to keep the audience awake I felt rather than for any narrative reason.
But it’s the scenes between the scary bits that make this such a flaccid production; we just don’t care about these people and there is no sense of jeopardy — that takes some doing given the subject matter — while Sean Mathias’ direction is clumsy, bordering on the inept.
The Exorcist is at the Phoenix Theatre and is currently booking until 10 March 2018
You can book tickets for The Exorcist and other West End shows at Radio Times Box Office
Photography by Robert Day