Creating an equally terrifying, equally blood-curdling, edge-of-your-seat stage-adaption of arguably the most notorious horror story of all time is quite a tall order. The 1973 film was the first of its genre to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, so playwright John Pielmeier had some high expectations to live up to.
Did it disappoint? Meh.
The Exorcist comes to Manchester’s Opera House for the final leg of its 2019 tour and brings with it Paul Nicholas (Just Good Friends) as Father Merin, Sophie Ward (Holby City) as Chris MacNeil, and Ben Caplan (Call the Midwife) as Father Damien. The star of the show, however, is undoubtedly the fantastic Susannah Edgley. Her portrayal of the possessed, demonic twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil was carried out beautifully – there’s even a 360 degree head-turn, which I am still baffled by.
The plot stays pretty much true to William Peter Blatty’s original novel. Set in Washington D.C., it sees only child Regan finding her body inhabited by a perverted demon, after playing with a Ouija board in the attic and befriending ‘Captain Howdy’.
Under the control of the havoc-wreaking demon (voiced by Ian McKellen CH CBE), who claims to be the Devil himself, Regan predicts and executes the death of Burke, her mother’s drunken colleague and friend, inadvertently kills Father Merrin and Father Karrass, projectile vomits a putrid green substance, and performs a number of other disturbing acts. The more conservative members of the audience will have undoubtedly been left flustered by the crucifix masturbation and violent demands of rape, among other brazen, vulgar gestures.
The complexity of the story, based on true events, goes beyond sheer terror and challenges the struggle between belief and doubt, life and death, innocence and evil. The reason the story is so horrifying, after all, is because it happens to a little girl, and her mother, with much apprehension, is forced to watch it all unfold and either accept her daughter as incredibly hysterical and mentally ill, or accept the nemesis of something much darker.
I was sceptical about just how scary a stage production of The Exorcist could be, and my verdict is – not very. The shock factor was definitely present, with perverted sexual references and criticisms of Catholicism pervading the play, but I wouldn’t say that the production is anywhere near as disturbing as the film adaptation.
Lighting and sound were used to immaculate effect, creating tension and eeriness with great precision. Before the play even began, we were thrown in at the deep end, immersed in darkness and intense music without warning. I can’t deny, my hairs were raised before anything even happened onstage.
However, for me, the fear instilled by the use of lighting, sound, and jump scares was pretty much where the element of horror reached its limit. The voice of the demon was pretty cringe-worthy, lacking in the authentic rasp that Mercedes McCambridge gave to the original film, and sounding more like a parody voiceover put together by a group of struggling film students.
My burning question before seeing the play was if and how the producers would go about attempting the famous spider-walk and levitation scenes, and the answer is, they didn’t (they have wires don’t they?!).
The story of The Exorcist is theatrical in nature – it’s overwhelmingly dramatic and emotional, and the omission of some of the most iconic scenes and a rather abrupt ending left me admittedly feeling as though the mark had perhaps slightly been missed. Nonetheless, it was two hours well spent, and seeing one of the most infamous and controversial stories brought to life was definitely an experience to remember.