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Nicola Wright

Review: THE EXORCIST at the Phoenix Theatre

The Exorcist Regarded by many as one of the most iconic, and disturbing horror films ever made, The Exorcist was released in 1973. Banned by some cinemas the audience were desperate to see if this multi award winning film would live up to the word of mouth hype. Written originally as a book by William Peter Blatty and two years later as the film, this stage version which began at Birmingham Rep, has been adapted by John Pielmeier and remains as faithful to the book as the confines of a stage production will allow.

But can a stage production of this complex horror story of possession, religious faith, guilt and good versus evil, really live up to its film predecessor?

The audience last night were obviously hoping so, the anticipation was palpable and as the the auditorium was plunged into darkness there was a flash of light, a waft of incense and the sound of nervous gasps and giggles.The clever double height set design by Anna Fleischle lends itself to the rapid scene changes, opening with Father Lankester Merrin (Peter Bowles) on an archaeological dig in Iraq, and moving swiftly back to the home of Chris MacNeil ( Jenny Seagrove) and her daughter Regan in Georgetown. After playing with a ouija board Regan makes contact with 'Mr Howdy' and very quickly the innocent child becomes demonically possessed , urinating at her mother's party, uttering profanities and killing her kindly 'Uncle' Burke. After examination by doctors who believe Regan's aberrations are psychotic, Chris meets with Father Karras (Adam Garcia), who is struggling with guilt since the death of his mother. Karras witnessing the demonic manifestations coming from Regan is convinced that an exorcism is needed, and Father Merrin is brought back for one last time, with Karras as his assistant to perform it.

The illusions by Ben Hart, projection designs by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, and atmospheric lighting by Philip Gladwell all help to deliver some of the memorable moments from the film. The famous head turn is cleverly executed as is the writing on the bedroom wall ,and there are nods towards other key effects such as the projectile vomit and levitating furniture. However, it is Claire Louise Connolly who is the star of this show. Delivering a tour de force performance as she transforms from a sweet twelve year old to a demonically possessed teenager writhing on her bed and miming to the fiendish voice of Ian Mckellen's cunning and provoking devil within her.

The action moves swiftly along at 1 hour 40 minutes with no interval, although with some scenes from the original either not included, or condensed, tension was not given the time to build slowly or deliver as well as it could .There are a few intentional laughs provided by Tristram Wymark early in the play as Burke and although perhaps not as shocking as it was in the 70's, the piece still provides several uncomfortable moments.

So can the play live up to the film? In the case of The Exorcist, I don't believe so, and does that matter? Again, I don't believe so .The story is strong and compelling whether on stage or screen and will attract a fan base wanting to see if it lives up to their memory of the film. Judging by the audience reaction, there are enough shocks and scares to ensure that a new generation will spend a good evening at the theatre.

The Exorcist