Writer: John Pielmeier
Author: William Peter Blatty
Director: Sean Mathias
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
A good horror show is about more than haunted house settings and special effects, it’s how music, lighting, sound effects, stage designs and characterisation combine to create something truly chilling.
A good horror show script is never about the words and actions that are playing out in front of you, it’s about what’s lurking beneath the surface, the psychological torments the ghosts and demons represent, and the links between them and everyday reality that deliver the real frights.
The team behind the stage version of The Exorcist understand this and use it to create a production that superbly ticks every box required for genre.
Anna Fleischle’s stage set is lit as the audience walk in. At this stage it looks like the archetypal haunted house. Uneasy music is playing as if it’s easing you gently into the show, and then there is the sudden visceral shock as the lights go out, the music stops and the blackout is punctuated by short explosions and blinding flashes. You know that something sinister this way comes.
When the play starts, the focus is on the top of the stage where Father Merrin speaks about faith and the things that can make people doubt it. It’s a world away from the day to day life of Chris, a mother and actor in the middle of making her latest movie, but when the action cuts to her and daughter Regan, you know there’s a connection, and even the lightest dialogue is filled with a sense of unease.
And yet, it still appears to be relatively normal lives playing out as drunken director Burke Dennis talks about his agnosticism, and Regan plays with imaginary friends in her bedroom. The twists start to come as the friend spells out his name on the Ouija board she’s playing with and gets her to play a game that ends with her having to let him touch her. It’s possession, but who or what is she being possessed by? The sexualised language suggests she could be a victim of child abuse, but there’s no real evidence of this. The alternative is demonic possession, something there is an equal lack of evidence for.
After Dennis is found dead below Regan’s open bedroom window, visits from doctors, psychologists and priests follow, and the demon gain a greater hold on Regan. All other options are ruled out and the only solution is an exorcism. Father Merrin returns to do this, supported by Father Karras, a priest whose faith has waned since the death of his mother. The stage is set for the battle between good and evil that dominates the second act.
Sean Mathias’s direction wrings every bit of tension it can out of John Pielmeier script and Philip Gladwell’s lighting design is always on hand to complement the mood whether it’s the flashes and explosions or light and shadows illuminating parts of the stage and shrouding others in darkness. Alongside this Adam Cork’s sound design maintains a sense of doom throughout with extra layers of foreboding as the exorcism builds slowly to a conclusion. Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s projections above the bed where Regan is confined provide the finishing touches to set the tone.
The cast all play their roles superbly, but the stand out is undoubtedly Susannah Edgley as Regan, effortlessly switching from excessive innocence to foul-mouthed full on possession and wide-eyed madness in Act 2 as her voice is replaced by that of the self-proclaimed devil inside her.
The exorcism itself occasionally slips into statement making and overlong proclamations, and when the voice of what’s possessing her turns out to be that of Ian McKellen it’s too hard to shake off the image of him sitting on Graham Norton’s couch for it to be really chilling, but these are minor points as the carefully crafted production builds up the suspense and asks all the right questions about the nature of demons before leaving the audience to come up with their own conclusions.
An excellent production that chills and entertains in equal measure.
Runs until 9 November 2019 then touring | Image (of previous cast) : Contributed