The Exorcist – King’s Theatre

Based on the book by William Peter Blatty

Adapted by John Pielmeier

Directed by Sean Mathias

When all medical help fails your child – when it seems as though the Reaper is closing in around her, or perhaps, a darker entity, you would turn to anyone to save them. After daughter Reagan begins to show signs of possession, actress Chris turns to the church to save her. Bill Kenwright’s Westend production takes William Peter Blatty’s supernatural text, The Exorcist, and creates a technically heavy show, which blunders into biblical failures of the unholiest intention.

Sean Mathias’ grave mistake with the production boils down to issues with pacing, The Exorcist is a tremendously slow-building text which requires build-up for the supernatural presence to take effect. The entire story survives on taking its time, allowing the menace to pervade. This is especially relevant now, given fewer devote followers who find the concept alone enough to heighten the fright factor. Susannah Edgley seems to perform Regan on fast-forward, delivering a remarkably peculiar character, devoid of childlike innocence. Mathias’ direction seems to concern itself with diving into the superficial – the gore, the swearing, the horror, but this means the sudden switch and speedy deliveries feel akin to an amateur performance, far from what this cast is capable of.

Committing wholly, soaking in every ounce of the show is Paul Nicholas, to no one’s surprise. Father Merrin’s part in the story is limited like his cinematic counterpart, but the gravity he conveys accidentally serves to showcase how little control Ben Caplan manages to get across as Father Karras. He holds limited presence, particularly when placing him alongside the likes of Tristram Wymark’s Uncle Burk, a luvvie film director. An error is that in the scripts intimately difficult scenes, such as Regan’s brief masturbation with a crucifix, the cast members involved seem too determined for the scene to be over. They draw attention to how tonally awkward the script can be when they should be embracing such a volatile piece of writing which has such depth if crude merit to its theme.

Where praise lies and an apology from others should follow, is with the technical team and stage management. With various iconic scenes to re-create, Anna Fleischle’s set is dripping with suburban American mood, with the distinct menace eerily floating through the environment. There’s depth to the design, which enables the house to gain a sense of scale, of space. While we may lose the infamous shot of Father Marren lit only by the streetlight, the harrowing echoes of Tubular Bells in the background, we do get a glimmer of recreation, but it is a shame to have lost the scene, especially as it is on the programmes cover.

Construction has been carried out with Ben Hart’s illusions in mind, seamlessly blending multiple fantasies into the background, with only a few tricks of the trade revealing themselves. For the most part, the witchery of The Exorcist is kept under wraps, on occasion to tremendous effect. As the finale draws near, Regan rises into the air to confront her redeemers, there’s a genuine air of malevolence. The infamous head turn, if carried out successfully, is relatively simple, but practical and effective, these are the effects which make the show worth viewing. 

In the world of theatre, it’s all smoke and mirrors – or at least, acts of light and sound. Philip Gladwell’s lighting design frames the production in a persistent ominous glow, from the house’s amber-tint to the cheap, though effective shock-value jolts of the strobe, covering movement or stage-setup. It marries with Adam Cork’s sound composition, which is unnerving, with its whispers, chanting and creaks in the darkness. Though, a selling feature for many is the sultry tones of another sound effect.

The Sir himself, Ian McKellen, provides the voice of the demon, suffice to say, unsurprisingly, it’s a weighty performance. It marries oddly well with Edgley’s miming, which does take times to get used to. At first, it feels unnatural, but not in the supernatural sense, removing us from the immersion. Sir McKellen’s voice is a distraction, at first, it’s difficult with such star-power for an audience to remove themselves from hearing the performer rather than the character. He certainly brings a dedication to the role, dripping with over-the-top malice and demonic glee, though his dulcet annunciations feel less diabolical and more condescending.

In truth, an unholy alliance of abysmal pacing, with misjudged direction and weak character portrayals keeps the classic of supernatural horror from achieving what it ought to. It’s a tried and tested story, still inspiring spin-off, images and blatant rip-offs to this day. The Exorcist was a defining classic of cinematic horror. It should easily have made a transition to the stage, and chances are, with superior direction, and a tighter grasp of the narrative, it could rival the likes of The Woman in Black as theatre’s nightmarish secret.

The Exorcist runs at The King’s Theatre until November 9th: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/the-exorcist

Photo Credit – The Other Richard