As church bells toll and vespers are devoutly chanted, barely concealing the cacophony of whispered voices which fill the room, the auditorium alternately subjected to blinding light then plunged into darkness, there can be no doubting that The Exorcist has arrived in town, one of the most notorious and enduring horror texts of modern times now a major theatrical production.
Adapted for the stage from the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty and directed by Sean Matthias and now touring with a new cast following its London run, the voice of the demon Pazuzu is provided in absentia by Sir Ian McKellen, torturing and possessing teenage Regan MacNeil, Susannah Edgely at her best when miming to McKellen’s words
Their struggle brought to the fore by writer John Pielmeier, it is the only significant deviation from William Friedkin’s celebrated film adaptation to which the stage version owes almost everything from the costumes and set design upwards, a direct translation across mediums with no attempt made to reshape the work to explore the possibilities allowed by live performance or restructure it to avoid the endless dreaded rolling partition of scene changes.
Regan’s movie star mother Chris MacNeil played by Brave New World‘s Sophie Ward, her director is the heavy-drinking Burke Denning, Tristram Wymark continuing the role from the west end, a part perhaps weighted slightly heavily towards broad comedy but a necessary contrast to the gurning angst of the rest of the cast.
The crucial role of the tortured Father Damien Karras played by Ben Caplan, his faith fallen to doubt following the death of his mother, the cast of The Exorcist are wholly British yet have been directed to perform with implausable American accents, whiny nasal tones which undermine a drama already overshadowed by firecrackers, bangs and flashes.
Noisy spectacle easier to create than genuine atmosphere, while the placement of a secondary performance space above Regan’s bedroom allows the noises she hears in the attic in the opening scenes to be connected to the earlier manifestation of the evil, the endless traipsing up and down the long staircase becomes tedious rather than ominous.
The rear-projected visuals on her bedroom wall and deafening sound design seemingly intended to overwhelm rather than unsettle the audience, while the expected projectile vomit and physical manipulations are achieved they seem the purpose of the scenes rather than the (un)natural result of the circumstances, the actors and play in service to the effects rather than the reverse.
The lead billing given to Paul Nicholas as Father Lankester Merrin, he is barely glimpsed in the first act and a late arrival in the second, only needed for his titular role as the exorcist, though he is by far the best of the cast present, his voice matching the taunting power of McKellen’s recorded performance and both spinning head and shoulders above the rest of the ensemble.