I’m an unabashed horror fan. I love anything scary or creepy. And, like most horror fans, I think that the 1973 film The Exorcist stands as a classic. A potent combination of religion and horror, the story continues to be an unsettling one even in a world where the horror genre is now far more mass market and where every idea seems to have been iterated to death, pardon the pun. It may lack the punch it once had in some ways, at least for modern audiences, but a classic it remains. I was however skeptical of a stage production of the screenplay. Sure it was just before Halloween and I expected it to at least give me that thrill of a seasonal tie in, but sincerely, how would it work? Could it be scary? Would this story really still have the ability to shock and surprise without the powers that the film camera can afford? The answer, I’m pleased to say, is a resounding yes.
The story, now well known to most, follows actress Chris Macniel (played by Jenny Seagrove) and her daughter Regan (Clare Louise Connolly), the latter suddenly and shockingly possessed by a demonic entity. The church, in the form of Father Damien (Adam Garcia) and Father Lankester Merrin (Peter Bowles), are brought into the Macniel home to perform an exorcism after traditional medicines fail to aid poor Regan. Chaos ensues.
It’s a (now anyway) fairly straight-forward setup, one that could have ticked a few tropes but likely without the requisite chills and thrills if not handled properly, dismissed as a poor imitation of the film. Not this production however, brought to life by award winner Sean Mathias from John Pielmeir’s adaptation of the original novel by William Peter Blatty.
What stood out most strongly to me at first was how well everything was staged. A huge, two level set showed remarkable flexibility and the choice to give a large chunk over to Regan’s bedroom was a good one. Light is used to brilliant effect, startling the audience to blind them from what is to come in one moment, framing and highlighting key moments in almost black and white cutout silhouettes the next. Visually it’s very strong indeed. Smoke misted across the stage almost constantly, the music unnerved in the ways you would hope. The audience lapped up the atmosphere, particularly during some very clever special effects used to bring the more famous moments of the story to life in surprisingly effective fashion, sparking one or two ‘how did they do that’ moments.
Of course none of this would matter without a solid turn by the cast. While I felt that Jenny Seagrove was perhaps a bit too theatrical at times, she still played the distraught mother believably, full of the requisite anguish. Garcia and Bowles were strong, effective figures too, selling the religious aspects well. However it has to be said that the stars of the show are the demon itself, voiced with delicious relish by Sir Ian McKellen, and Connolly as Regan. She was good at selling the sweet innocence of her character, yet great at being the evil, cruel possessed Regan. She had the audience in the palm of her hand and truly commanded the stage at numerous points throughout. In short, her performance sealed the deal. My final hesitations at how effectively this story could be staged live were quashed by her devilish and energetic turn.
I mentioned at the top of this review that I was a fan of the original film. I’m also enjoying the television adaptation greatly so maybe I’m the ideal demographic thus perhaps a little biased. Now though, I can officially add The Exorcist Live to that list. It’s a true horror blockbuster of a show that deserves great success, at Halloween or beyond.