The Exorcist

Nov 6 2019 | By More

★★☆☆☆    Unholy error

King’s Theatre: Tue 5 – Sat 9 November 2019
Review by Rory Ford

If the Devil truly is in the details then the Devil is sadly absent from this curiously flat adaptation of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty’s classic novel of demonic possession at the King’s to Saturday.

Technically, it’s as impressively mounted as you might expect from a Bill Kenwright production that originally debuted in London’s West End in 2017.

Sophie Ward, Eliza Capel and Tristram Wymark. Pic: The Other Richard

The set design by Anna Fleische is strikingly imposing. She cunningly divides the set into at least three distinct parts, which allows for at least a modicum of pace, while Phillip Gladwell’s lighting design does its level best to impart atmosphere. But this is all undone by a flat script and mostly indifferent performances.

In many respects it should work. Adapted by American playwright John Pielmeier (Agnes Of God), Blatty’s novel is quite theatrical. Most of the action takes place in a big old house (with a big old attic) in Georgetown and much of the real meat takes place in 12 year-old Reagan MacNeil’s bedroom as she she is tormented by a demon – the uncredited voice of Sir Ian Mckellen.

Having such a big name attached actually proves to have quite a deadening effect. Mckellen is probably miscast for one thing; he’s initially avuncular rather than sinister and the invented “dialogue” between him and Regan seems less of an interesting extrapolation of the novel’s themes and more like heavy-handed fan-fiction.

functional but uninspired

Pielmeier’s script is perfectly functional but uninspired. It’s carelessly littered with interesting ideas which are discarded as soon as they’re expressed.

Eliza Capel and Paul Nicholas. Pic: The Other Richard

The titular exorcist, Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas, who gives the most committed performance of the production) describes himself as a “philosophical palaeontologist” and posits the notion that as man’s becomes more evolved his belief in supernatural forces wanes which has made the Devil increasingly angry. This is a fascinating idea but it goes precisely nowhere.

The script is mainly a rather flat presentation of themes and events that hurries itself along as if aware that the audience are impatient to get to the next set-piece that they remember from the movie.

In fact, this is at least as much an adaptation of William Friedkin’s phenomenal 1973 film adaptation as it is the original novel. Knowing that the audience has already seen the graphic horrors on screen, director Sean Mathias has felt compelled to recreate them on stage.

hokey recreation

Given the differences in the medium the infamous masturbating-with-a-crucifix scene would be much more effective if suggested but, instead we get a hokey recreation where the three actors involved all look rather embarrassed – as well they might.

Eliza Capel. Pic: The Other Richard

Occasionally, it works quite well – Reagan’s 360 degree head turn is surprisingly effective because the effect is entirely unexpected and not oversold – but most of the time effects are hammered home with flash-bang lighting effects which are overused to the point of tedium.

Susannah Edgley as Regan gives a good account of herself but at least half her performance is given over to miming to Mckellen and after a while the effect is distancing rather than chilling.

Elsewhere – apart from Nicholas, who obviously enjoys himself – the performances have a clipped well-let’s-just-get-through-this quality to them. At times the dialogue is delivered like a 1940s screwball comedy but, unlike Blatty’s own screenplay, there are no witty lines and little time for theological philosophy either.

No-one in the cast disgraces themselves but it’s not going to headline anyone’s C.V. either. A damn shame.

Running time: Two hrs and 5 mins (including one interval).
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven St, EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 5 – Saturday 9 November 2019
Evenings: Tue – Thurs: 7.30pm; Fri/Sat 8.30pm; Matinees Wed 2.30pm, Fri/Sat: 5pm.
Information and tickets: Book here.

The Exorcist on tour 2019:
4 – 9 November Edinburgh
Kings Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
12 – 16 November Inverness
Eden Court
01463 234 234 Book online
19 – 23 November Aberdeen
His Majesty’s Theatre
01224 641122 Book online


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