Review – The Exorcist, Phoenix Theatre

Friday 17 November 2017

“This production contains material which may shock and offend” boasts The Exorcist. Here’s 10 reasons why you may be shocked or offended but perhaps not in the way that’s intended:

1 Those of us without time on our side but still retaining a smattering of memory might recall the ginormous brouhaha when the film was released in 1973. It was the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, was banned in Ireland, and in places where it was permitted religious groups tried to persuade queuing cinemagoers not to go in to see the movie (perhaps something we might adopt outside some West End theatres). Some of those who were unpersuaded had attacks of the vapours whilst watching. It was debated on TV on The Dimbleby Talk-In (see below – it’s rather quaint). Phil’s sister’s friend went to see it and emerged deeply disturbed, while Phil’s mum begged him not to go to see it worrying “It might turn you funny”.

2 John Pielmeier has adapted William Peter Blatty‘s novel. It’s the story of a young American girl Regan (Clare Louise Connolly) who fiddles around with a ouija board and becomes possessed by the devil using and abusing her like a ventriloquist’s doll forced to utter a tirade of filth.

3 Jenny Seagrove plays her mother Chris MacNeil, like her daughter she speaks in tongues too, some of them coming close to resembling an American accent. She reacts to the death of a friend as if it were a minor inconvenience. We were thoroughly amused at the irony of seeing Seagrove playing an actress. But here she’s a film star prone to wandering around in a headscarf and massive sunglasses in an unlikely bid to seek anonymity from her celebrity status. How we chuckled.

Anna Fleischle’s design covers its multiple locations most effectively. Though the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it opening with Peter Bowles somewhere in the middle east, high above the stage is a bit of a puzzler. What exactly is he doing?

 Mr Bowles must get through an awful lot of sudokus in his dressing room as he doesn’t appear properly until well into Act 2, but when he does turn up, to perform the exorcism, we were impressed by the recreation of the film’s iconic poster. Though we were disappointed to see he’d ditched his opening-scene turban.

6 Sean Mathias’ production is an assault of sound (Adam Cork), light, smoke effects and smells(!) to shock you out of your seat. Occasionally this works though the climactic exorcism is notable mostly for Ms Seagrove crawling around on her hands and knees in the corridor as if trying to locate some mislaid emotion. Shame that the thunderous sound effects didn’t inspire some of the cast to be better vocally poorly projected and less underpowered…

7 ..though this was not a problem for the recorded voice of Sir Ian Mckellen. He’s probably a bit too familiar to be the voice of the devil, yet it sort of works. Rather distractingly Sir Ian was sitting 3 rows in front of us. It was hard to tell if he laughed at his own lines, which are rather funny at times. Though not as funny as in the French and Saunders’ Exorcist parody, “Your mother sucks jelly babies in Hell”. The devil gets all the best gags.

8 Yes, since you ask, it does contains many of those notorious scenes that are in the film: inappropriately timed bladder emptying, that deeply unpleasant business with a crucifix (which might now be replaced by a Greggs’ sausage roll), the tormenting of Father Damien (Adam Garcia) on a bed that thinks it’s a bouncy castle, though it’s disappointing to say we’ve seen projectile vomiting much better done. Best of all the head-spinning is recreated on stage in head-spinningly splendid fashion. Congrats to illusion designer Ben Hart.

9 Connolly is brilliant as Regan. She is completely convincing as a young girl and seems to age throughout the course of the show. Of course she’s not a girl but she certainly had us fooled. Her lip-synching to the playfully potty-mouthed McKellen recording is spookily uncanny.

10 It used to be 1 hour 40 minutes without an interval, they’ve added one and it’s now runs 2 hours. Pity. Though a visit to the Phoenix Theatre’s gents stalls loo gives men a taste of what it’s like for the ladies. Most of the interval was spent queuing. Phil contemplated “doing a Regan” and urinating over the shoes of person next to him.

Of course it’s rubbish but it is rather enjoyable, mildly camp, rubbish if you pass over the bits between the effects as swiftly as possible. It could never approach the impact of 44 years ago. The biggest problem is if you’ve seen this spoof it’s awfully difficult to take it too seriously…




3 Responses to “Review – The Exorcist, Phoenix Theatre”

  1. John A Says:

    So Bowles plays the Max Von Sydow role? Saw the film back in the 70s and remember the vomiting, head spinning and crucifix rabbit scenes, and of course the end, that I will not spoil. No desire to see it on stage, though.

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      He does indeed. Strangely MVS was the only Prospero I’ve ever seen on stage. Also seated in my row that night was Richard Harris whose son Jared performed the exorcism in the remake of Poltergeist.
      How’s that for a tortuous link?

  2. Billy Says:

    A charmng review, as always from the Whinger(s) – Yes, John A, it does seem a bit of a comedown from Max von Sydow and Richard Burton as onscreen exorcists to the chap who played Guthrie Featherstone on Rumpole of the Bailey. Bowles does what he does quite competently, of course, but he is not the most ominous presence onstage. As for the director Mathias, as ex-companion of Serena, was there some subliminal message of casting Sir Ian in the voice role immortalized in the film by that alcoholic actress of ambiguius gender affiliation, Mercedes McCambridge? Was it Serena’s second stab at a trans-gender part, after Widow Twankey? Perhaps a visit to their pub is in order to ask these and other pressing questions…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: