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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Exorcist
Phoenix Theatre  Autumn 2017

There are plenty of scary moments in this stage version of the 1973 girl-possessed-by-a-demon movie. But most of them are the theatrical equivalents of shouting 'Boo!' at the audience, with too little of the general eerieness the film had. 

Actually, playwright John Pielmeier based his script on William Peter Blatty's novel rather than the screenplay, though the distinction seems negligible. A twelve-year-old girl starts using foul language, speaking in strange voices and a private language, and for some reason her mother finds this odd. 

Well, she also spins her head around, levitates and kills people, so mother calls in first the doctors, then the shrinks and finally the priests. 

An experienced exorcist does his best, but it is the commitment and courage of a younger priest fighting his own wavering faith that saves the day. 

Absolute hokum, of course, but – as the film's success showed – potentially very effective hokum. 

Whether it works for you onstage depends largely on how strongly and frequently you can be scared by flashing lights, loud noises and lots of sudden darkness – the theatrical equivalent, as I said, of someone jumping out and shouting 'Boo!' 

I wasn't much. The thunderclaps, sputtering or exploding light bulbs, flashes of lightning and other artificial aids to scariness become too predictable and too familiar too quickly to work. 

The set pieces are uneven. The turning head is impressive, the levitation less so, and while the actress lip-syncs skilfully to a recorded devil voice, the voice itself is just an uncredited Ian McKellen not being particularly menacing. 

There are some effective staging touches. Anna Fleischle's set and Philip Gladwell's lighting allow several different locations to be represented onstage, the action cutting cinematically from one to another. 

As the mother, Jenny Seagrove spends most of the play wringing her hands and being shooed out of the room by one expert after another. 

Clare Louise Connolly is convincing as the pre-possessed child and writhes impressively afterwards, while Peter Bowles has what amounts to a guest-star cameo as the old priest. 

Adam Garcia offers the most developed and sympathetic characterisation as the doubt-haunted younger priest, so much so that the drama of this man's spiritual crisis threatens to become more interesting and involving than the weird girl in the bed.

Gerald Berkowitz

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