Written for the stage by John Pielmeier
Directed by Sean Mathias
Starring Jenny Seagrove, Adam Garcia, Peter Bowles, Claire Louise Connolly, Trystram Wymark and the voice of Sir Ian McKellen
Playing until 10 March 2018 at The Phoenix Theatre, London
One of the all-time great horror stories, The Exorcist is a timeless concept if not always a successful one. While the new TV show is fantastic, the original film’s sequels have ranged from terrible (Exorcist 2: The Heretic) to flawed but interesting (The Exorcist III) to profoundly weird (the two version of prequel movie The Exorcist: Dominion that were shot).
Now, the story has come to London’s West End. And, unfortunately, it’s another uneven take on the idea.
Playwright John Pielmeier seems to be a huge fan of the original and, honestly, that’s not a good thing. With the exception of the spider-walking we get pretty much every high spot from the movie, whether they’re needed or not. Worse still, we get them all at a near gallop, the play’s pacing shifting from methodical and plodding in the first half to a mad sprint in the second as Pielmeier struggles to fit everything in. The exorcism itself feels especially rushed and lacks almost all of the hard-fought desperation of the original. It’s also badly hampered by the limitations of the physical space with the iconic final sacrifice replaced by something far smaller in scope and less frightening as a result.
The result is a script that feels more like a greatest hits reel for the movie than an entirely coherent story in its own right. Father Merrin, played here by UK TV legend Peter Bowles, is especially badly served, A brief (And unintentionally funny at one point) pair of scenes early on give way to him arriving in the second act and…not doing terribly much. Merrin’s ill health and the insidious nature of the demon are both touched on but neither really get a chance to bed in. Instead, he’s funneled into that rushed, botched final exorcism without getting a chance to register as a character.
That sensation of hitting marks rather than telling a story carries over to the direction too. Sean Mathias’ cast take a full act to settle in, everyone spending the first hour talking at that speed and intonation only people in 1970s movies ever seem to use. Jenny Seagrove, as Chris MacNeil, is especially prone to this and it badly damages the emotional connection we need with the character. Likewise, Adam Garcia’s Father Karras spends every moment his on stage in the first half talking about how grief stricken he is rather than actually showing us. Finally, Bowles’ Father Merrin is the exact, gentle, steely warrior of God he needs to be, but only actually gets to be on stage for perhaps 40 minutes. All of them, and the supporting characters too, sprint through their lines in a manner that aims for naturalistic but instead plays as rushed.
It’s not all bad news. Claire Louise Connolly handles the impossible role of Regan with honesty and strength. Trystam Wymark’s Burke has the right melancholy joy to him and Elliot Harper’s Father Joe is a solid, stoic presence that holds together his every scene. Plus Sir Ian McKellen, as the voice of the demon, is effortlessly great every time. McKellen’s beloved, rumbling vocals are deliberately pitched to reassure you so when they take a dark turn, and they do, it hits all the harder. That being said, again the script makes odd choices here. Pielmeier feels the need to make the demon far more overtly, physically evil in what he asks Regan to do.
The stage craft impresses too. There’s a moment with Regan and a carving knife that got an entirely deserved gasp from the audience and some lovely work done with shadows and back projection especially in the first act. The set feels claustrophobic and slightly too big, ramping up the sense of nightmarish unease that the script so often fails to reach.
There’s good work here, but it just never quite comes together. The Exorcist is an all time classic and it honestly feels like that has intimidated the production. A little more measured approach, and a willingness to break from the original paid dividends with the TV show but, unfortunately, this production has kept the faith a little too closely to be successful.