the exocism

Adam Garcia as Father  Karras, Clare Louise Connolly as Regan and Peter Bowles as Father Merrin

The Exorcist

Birmingham Rep

****

PAZUZU, king of the demons of the wind, Mara, Apophis, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, Shaitan, the devil . . . all the people of the earth have their demons.

It’s when the demons have the people that the trouble starts and that is where The Exorcist comes in.William Peter Blatty’s 1971 book had its origins in an actual case of an exorcism performed on a boy from Maryland in 1949. Blatty also wrote the screenplay for the chilling 1973 film based on the book which is regarded as a horror classic.

But book, feeding the reader’s limitless imagination, and film, with ground-breaking special effects at the time, are one thing, transferring that nerve jangling supernatural horror to the stage is another.

Remember the mass hysteria on the film's release; people were reported to be fainting or throwing up at the graphic scenes, some cinemas in the USA apparently gave out barf bags while in the UK St John’s Ambulance were regularly in attendance at screenings.

John Pielmeier went back to the original novel for his 2012 play and in truth the result is a play which is disturbing rather than out and out frightening.

True, there are times when you feel the hairs rise on the back of your neck, and sense that shudder of unease, but what this UK premiere really has is a well-acted, gripping, supernatural drama.

All the theatrical tricks to suggest horror and seagroveengender fear are employed. Ornaments flying in the air and breaking, windows smashing, the writing in blood appearing on walls, doors opening and closing, drawers flying out of cabinets, projectile vomiting, thunder and lightning – the weather really was terrible – and loud bangs, flashes and plunges into darkness as well as scary music and sound effects. All cracking stuff.

Sean Mathias must have had the time of his life delving into the director’s horror toolbox along with lighting designer Tim Mitchell and composer and sound designer Adam Cork.

Jenny Seagrove as Chris and Peter Bowles as Father Merrin

The result is a gothic spectacular all lit by what appears to be a collection of  20 watt bulbs with a fluctuating power supply. Dim lighting of course making the regular back projection more effective and aiding the special effects, as well as hiding black clad stage hands unintentionally glimpsed in the shadows from time to time.

Anna Fleischle’s design divides the stage into the living area of film star Chris’s rented home, her daughter Regan’s bedroom along with an attic – or church pews – above and even a gym to the side.

The story is simple. Chris, a convincing performance from Jenny Seagrove who shows real emotion as an anguished mother, is recently divorced and living in a rented old house with her 10-year-old daughter Regan while she makes a romantic comedy with film director Burke, played with avuncular enthusiasm, assisted by spiritual help from a hip flask by Tristram Wymark. He brings a light-hearted fun to proceedings, so much so that his death is the first and perhaps greatest shock of the night. It brought an audible gasp of horror from the audience.

All is well, if dimly lit, until Regan finds an Ouija board in the attic and is contacted by Captain Howdy from the spirit world and things go rapidly downhill from there. Reagan, in a quite magnificent performance from Clare Louise Connolly, becomes ill, violent, speaks in tongues, Latin, voicreganes, and starts to use language best described as industrial with crude sexual overtones and lewd acts which are all the more shocking from a 10-year-old.

Mitchell Mullen and Todd Boyce as doctors Klein and Strong, the latter a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist, have no answer beyond a mental hospital, which Chris will not accept. She has a secret in her past and is determined to do whatever is necessary to save her daughter.

That brings in Adam Garcia as priest psychiatrist Father Damien Karras – Damien being perhaps an unfortunate name when Satan is around, but we’ll let that pass. Karras being suggested by Father Joe, played by Joseph Wilkins, a friend of Burkes.

Clare Louise Connolly gives a memorable performance as daughter Regan

Garcia’s priest is in torment having lost his faith after the death of his mother and no longer believing in God finds it hard to believe in the devil, faith being an underlying theme of play and novel. If you start to believe possession by the devil is possible than, by default, you must believe in God.

That is the dilemma for Karras who believes in neither until his meetings with Regan, now strapped to a bed, convince him to approach the bishop to ask for an exorcism.

That brings in the exorcist, Father Merrin, played by Peter Bowles, old, scarred and with a weak heart after past battles with the forces of darkness, ready for a last stand in that age old battle of good against evil.

The climax is powerful and dramatic, which can also apply to the whole play. There is no ham acting here, no hint of melodrama, just a well told tale of faith and demonic possession.

Cinema has a whole bag of special effects tricks way beyond what even the most ambitious theatrical production can create, the two are worlds apart; the 1973 film was one adaptation of the book, this is another and deserves to be seen as such, as a play in its own right, well written, well directed and well acted with a stellar performance from Connolly and enough chills to make you uneasy all night. Just the thing for Halloween!

A co production between the Rep and Bill Kenwright, it has West End written all over it. To  05-11-16

Roger Clarke

25-10-16

 

A second opinion

**** 

AS the audience streamed away from this impressive premiere, one young lady turned to her friend and shuddered: “I shan’t sleep tonight”.

She would not be alone in that expression, which was a clear indication that the stage version of that 1973 Oscar-winning film had done its job.

Personally I didn’t find the play as scary as the movie, but you had to admire the way such a difficult subject was presented in front of your eyes, and the cheers at the Press night finale was a fitting reward for a fine cast and everyone else connected with the production.

During the film’s run there were reports of people fainting, vomiting, or trying to leave early, and there are certainly some stomach-churning incidents and vile language in John Pielmeier’s play, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty.

Brilliant lighting effects and sudden crashing noises – were they a little overdone? - like the worst thunder storm you have ever witnessed, a drawer flying out of a cupboard and objects hurtling off walls are used the get the audience on the edge of their seats. And it works.

But the real terror happens in ten-year-old Regan’s bedroom where she appears to be possessed by some dreadful force and when medical help fails a local priest is brought in and eventually exorcist, Father Merrin, is summoned.

Adult actress Clare Louise Connolly gives a truly brilliant performance as the tormented child, her actions when chained to the bed, and her miming to a chilling, snarling masculine voice, as well as her shocking, blood-stained actions, provide easily the most frightening moments in the play.

Peter Bowles plays Father Merrin, and there are excellent contributions from Jenny Seagrove as Regan’s mother, Chris, and Adam Garcia (Father DamienKarras).

Directed by Sean Mathias, The Exorcist continues to 05.11.16 

Paul Marston

 

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