We love horror and we love getting scared. We read scary books, watch horror films and devour gruesome TV series. Occasionally, however, horror comes to life on stage, to terrify us in a different way, when darkness falls in an old theatre.
Horror theatre has a rich heritage in the UK. The stage adaptation of The Woman in Black (based on the 1983 novella penned by Susan Hill) has been running in London’s West End for over 30 years and still attracts large crowds every day. Ghost Stories written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman (now a film set to be released in 2018) premiered back in 2010 and terrified thousands during its West End run. Last year, Jakop Ahlbom’s Horror was shown in London’s The Peacock Theatre and was one hell of an experience too, with blood splattering all over the stage.
This year, however, it’s the demonic masterpiece The Exorcist that is making its theatre debut in London, with Captain Howdy currently residing in The Phoenix Theatre. William Blatty’s book from 1971 has terrified me since I first read it as a teenager looking for a thrill, and it does so every time I re-read it as an adult. The 1973 film adaptation by William Friedkin is one of my favourite films and there’s something timeless about its tale of an innocent girl possessed. It still scares people over 40 years on.
Heading to the theatre for a 9pm performance, all I was thinking was: “What an excellent day for an exorcism”, to quote the demon in the story. Not being religious but coming from a Catholic background, there’s something about The Exorcist that makes it even scarier to me. And I must admit I did have “what if the demon is real” thoughts and all that nonsense.
The play is strongly advertised as unsuitable for viewers under the age of 18 and that it can offend some people. Knowing the infamous line from the book and film, “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras, you faithless slime”, I was even more excited and anticipating something shocking.
The Exorcist Live very much plays on the audience’s senses – there are sudden flashes of bright light, then total darkness, and loud bangs. There’s a lot of smoke and a strong smell of burning Catholic incense during many parts of the performance.
Clare Louise Connolly is Regan. She gives a fantastic performance that kept me on the edge of my seat and had the audience gasping in terror. We see Regan for the first time talking to her teddy bear and celebrating her 12th birthday. From the start (even without knowledge of the story) her assured performance tells us something isn’t right, when she tells her teddy, “I don’t like this place.” The story quickly unfolds, and sweet Regan – quite literally – turns into a demon…
Jenny Seagrove is likewise amazing and kept me wondering how much of her acting was based on Ellen Burstyn’s performance of Chris MacNeal in the film. Chris is a workaholic film star, currently making a new film, but she loves her daughter and wants what’s best for her. She changes dramatically when she realises Regan is possessed and in need of an exorcism. Shouting “That thing upstairs isn’t my daughter!”, Seagrove shows both raw emotion and total helplessness in the face of the situation. Tristram Wymark as Burke is funny and silly, and we all know how he eventually ends up… The Exorcist Live also stars Adam Garcia as Father Damien Karras and Peter Bowles as the legendary Father Merrin. The scene of the final exorcism is perhaps the most powerful: the demon swearing its (Regan’s) head off while violently jumping on the bed. Here, again, we witness a brilliant performance from Connolly and Sir Ian McKellen who lends his deep, iconic voice to Captain Howdy.
Fans of The Exorcist will appreciate some of the classic elements we all know so well: Regan urinating on the floor in front of her mother’s guests; puking all over her room when approached by Father Karras; spinning her head round and round (the scene that every time gives me creeps!); and – of course – putting a crucifix up her vagina in demonic frenzy. Classic The Exorcist.
The audience also gets to see the play’s recreation of the iconic scene from the film poster – Father Merrin, wearing his coat and hat, standing outside in silhouette. Those little things we know and love (or are terrified by) from the novel and the film are what make the play something quite special.
The Exorcist runs from 20 October 2017 until 10 March 2018. More information and tickets can be found here https://www.phoenixtheatrelondon.co.uk/the-exorcist/