Phoenix Theatre, London
If you are going to turn a seminal 1970s’ movie classic into a piece of theatre, then on the face of it William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is a good fit. With a small core cast and most of the action taking place in one room, the main challenge is less practical and more a question of how to convey the full head-turning horror to a generation which has seen it all before. And although the crowd here this evening appear – almost without exception – too young to have seen the “scariest movie of all time” on its release in 1973, you are left in no doubt that they have come fully expecting to see the infamous spider-walk (deleted from the movie’s original cut) levitation, a shaking bed and lashings of pea soup.
As the audience takes its seats, people giggle knowingly, and as a diehard fan of the film, my heart sinks a little. I’m hoping people have not just come for a laugh, and then as the curtain rises and a thunderous crash threatens to bring down the plasterwork, the audience, by now well and truly cowed, shuts up. The sonic boom, repeated at intervals throughout, is a marvellously effective way to induce terror at a stroke.
As things begin to go bump in the night in the house, actress Chris MacNeil (Jenny Seagrove) has rented while making a movie in DC, daughter Regan (Clare Louise Connolly) rather too quickly goes from laughing teen to swivel-eyed, potty-mouthed psychopath. A gentler metamorphosis would have been more satisfactory. Of course, you’re never alone with schizophrenia – Regan has Captain Howdy, whom she met while playing with a Ouija board, for company. But is Regan actually ill, as her doctors maintain, or is she, as her mother increasingly suspects, possessed? The unexplained death of ‘Uncle’ Burke – Tristram Wymark is so brilliantly creepy that you rather feel he deserves his defenestration –- leaves Mum in no doubt that Regan needs to see a priest. Fortunately, she bumps into Father Karras (the excellent Adam Garcia), who is both psychiatrist and pries, at a cocktail party. More chilling than the drama on stage, because it remains largely unseen, is the psychodrama between Father Karras and his own dead mother.
You probably know what happens next – certainly everyone here did – and that’s when this Exorcist really puts the frighteners on. As Regan is strapped to her bed, which finally shows some signs of animation, we hear the voice of Captain Howdy, (the overt implication that he is a paedophile owes more to Blatty’s original book than to the film) coming from the mouth of Regan. In a remarkable performance (only slightly diminished by a voluminous blonde wig that gives her the appearance of a much older drag queen), Connolly manages to lip sync her way through the entire exorcism while the voice of her possessor resounds from different parts of the theatre. (Eek! He’s behind you!) It can’t be easy to remain in such tight sync with a recording and Connolly deserves kudos for largely pulling it off.
I’ve always found Jenny Seagrove’s own voice quite irritating, but as American Chris she is magnificent; rarely off stage she binds the whole production together, perfectly balancing cynicism with maternal panic, and it’s difficult not to entertain rather un-Christian thoughts about Adam Garcia as he swishes about in his cassock. But the real plaudits go to designer Anna Fleischle, who has created a perfectly intimate interior, coupled to an unseen external malevolence. Camp? Yes, truly terrifying? Not really, but it definitely turns heads, and for fans of the film it more than passes muster. For me, the most chilling moment was surely the silhouetted arrival of Peter Bowles as Father Merrin, come to perform the exorcism, and looking as though he had stepped straight out of the original film poster. Incidentally my guest for the evening was under the impression that she was seeing a musical and actually arrived humming Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Right Round”. I can’t help thinking she’s onto something.
Photo: Robert Day