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Review: The Exorcist at the Phoenix Theatre

The classic 1973 movie finally makes its way to the stage as The Exorcist comes to the West End.

Inspired by true events, The Exorcist is based on William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel, which was later adapted into the highly controversial horror film of the same name.

Now, in a unique theatrical experience that is bound to petrify London audiences, the terrifying tale is at last unleashed onto the West End for the very first time.

The story focuses on twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil, who, after playing with a Ouija Board she finds in the house she is staying in with her mother, becomes bed-ridden with a strange illness. Symptoms include her making mysterious, odd noises in the middle of the night, developing a habit of stealing things, the sudden use of obscene language and exhibiting abnormal strength; she also begins talking to a supposedly imaginary friend called Captain Howdy.

Desperate to help her daughter, Chris – an actress, shooting a film on location nearby – calls on everyone she can think of; but when medical professionals fail to provide any answers to Regan’s unusual symptoms, Chris is forced to turn to the local priest, who believes an exorcism may hold the key to curing her daughter.

However, in order to save the girl’s soul, Father Karras must overcome his own shaken beliefs if he is to truly tackle the demons that stand before him.

Lead by award-winning film and theatre director Sean Mathias, this production – adapted for the stage by John Pielmeier – goes a long way to recreate the horror of the original movie. Widely considered to be one of the scariest stories of all time, William Friedkin’s two-time Academy Award-winning masterpiece saw cinema audiences fainting when it was first released in 1973, and it went on to become one of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time.

On the stage, the scariest moments are mostly down to the ingenious set and the clever use of space on the stage.

With the Pheonix’s relatively small proscenium, scenes for The Exorcist are split into tiny, confined locations, where cuts between the action happen unexpectedly, plunging the audience into total darkness, or taking you by surprise with the use of strobe lighting or other cleverly designed special effects that we shan’t ruin here.

The cast are on fine form too, and after a hit season at the Birmingham Rep, the majority of them have transferred with the production to the heart of the West End.

This includes Jenny Seagrove – last seen at the London Palladium in Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy How the Other Half Loves, playing a much different role here as the desperate mother Chris MacNeil. She stars opposite Adam Garcia (Wicked) as Karras, and veteran actor Peter Bowles makes up the holy trinity as Father Merrin.

It’s Clare Louise Connolly though who really deserves plaudits. As Regan, a role made famous by Linda Blair in the horror movie version of the story, Connolly is suitably creepy from the very beginning, and downright terrifying by the time the denouement comes around.

This stage version of The Exorcist also benefits from its relatively short running time. At just an hour and forty minutes, and played out over a single act, the story is able to ramp up a significant amount of tension and frightfulness, without risking the loss of any momentum through an interval at the halfway point.

It’s a bold move, but it really works, and really helps to add to the cinematic quality of the play.

Ultimately, The Exorcist on stage displays moment of genuine terror. There’s plenty here to please true aficionados of the original movie – some of the film’s most famous lines and scenes remain – but plenty to for newcomers to the horror as well.


The Exorcist runs at the Phoenix Theatre until 10 March 2018. Get your tickets now at Ticketmaster.co.uk.

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