Wednesday 26 October 2016

The Exorcist - Review

Birmingham Rep


Written by John Pielmeier
Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty
Directed by Sean Mathias

Adam Garcia, Clare Louise Connolly and Peter Bowles

Unquestionably for over 18s and with John Pielmeier's adaptation retaining both the physical and verbal profanity of Blatty's shocking novel, the tale of 10 year-old Regan’s possession by the devil condenses well into Sean Mathias’ neatly staged two hour yarn. With Hollywood forever having been about make believe and impossible illusions - now more than ever in the age of motion captured CGI – it was always going to be a tall order translating classic horror from screen to stage. So there’s a well-earned hurrah (or should that be scream?) for this evening of hokum that's currently playing in Birmingham over the Halloween fortnight. As the audience take their seats the house lights are gradually built up to a full on brightness before plunging the auditorium into a shriek-filled darkness and we’re off.

If you know the story then it’s all familiar territory. If you don’t, there’ll be no spoilers here. Kicking off with a brief glimpse of Father Merron, the excavating exorcist, digging up a decidedly dodgy amulet somewhere in the Middle East (think Indiana Jones crossed with Lawrence of Arabia) the action shifts to a house in Washington DC’s Georgetown where our pre-teen protagonist has been discovering the delights of the Ouija Board and her apparently imaginary friend, Captain Howdy. It’s hellishly downhill from thereon.

The production could arguably have been called The Possessed, rather than The Exorcist. It's not until the second act that the titular Peter Bowles really starts earning his wage, cassock donned and holy water spurting. Prior to then the story is all about the poor possessed Clare Louise Connolly's Regan becoming increasingly demonized.

Make no mistake - Bowles gives Merron a worthy gravitas. Not easy, given that his character on stage is reduced to a little more than a paper thin caricature with acute angina. Likewise his earnest sidekick Father Karras (fine work from Adam Garcia) eases the narrative along commandingly, whilst Jenny Seagrove's Chris, Regan's despairing film-star mother does a fine job, steering her character just safe of melodrama. Nods too, for Tristram Wymark's head-turning performance as Burke, the drink-soaked film directing family friend and also for Mitch Mullen who's as dependable as ever in the modest role of Dr. Klein.

The acting honours however are all Connolly’s in a performance that is quite simply a tour-de-force. Yes - there are some clever special effects and ingenious projections (which could to be honest be a little tighter, especially that rather clunky projectile vomiting gizmo) with Anna Fleischle's design work and Ben Hart's illusions creating the story's disconcertingly hellish domestic setting. But it is the diminutive Connolly who makes the show. Whether she's either speaking or lip-syncing to Ian McKellen's vocalizing her inner demon, Connolly’s performance suspends disbelief and from a terrifying precipice at that, utterly convincing that she is a girl possessed. 

Forty years ago on screen, director William Friedkin had Linda Blair’s Regan do all sorts of cleverly horrific tricks, assisted by an FX army and days of post-production. Live on stage however it’s all about the acting and Connolly simply becomes a blond haired fiend before our very eyes. One can only hope that the UK Theatre Awards judging team have her performance in their sights. 

Neither for the squeamish nor the pretentiously highbrow, The Exorcist represents Bill Kenwright at his very best, staging wonderfully entertaining theatre. And Clare Louise Connolly's Regan is unmissable!

Runs until 5th November
Photo credit: Robert Day

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