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Review: The Exorcist, Windsor

Forty-six years after it opened in cinemas and following its London stage debut, is The Exorcist must-watch, cult viewing? Read our verdict from the Theatre Royal Windsor's first night.

THE EXORCIST stage play London 2017 Regan andtwo prists at herbedside

A brilliant day for an exorcism (Image: Pamela Raith Photography, scene from 2017 London production.)

What an excellent day for an exorcism! Can you believe The Exorcist – one of the most iconic horror films of all time – is 46 years old? It’s a cult classic (racking up $450 million at the box office to date) and the storyline’s just as disturbing today as it was back then, Thankfully, the packed crowd at the Theatre Royal Windsor were less compelled to faint, vomit or run for the exits.

The stage version of The Exorcist is billed as a fresh adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel. But lovers of the movie shouldn’t clutch their rosary beads and hit the Hail Marys. From what I can remember of the film (it’s been a looooong time since I have seen it), it’s very similar with many of the memorable set-pieces, condensed into a taught 100 mins – spinning head, creepy sexual swearing; a snatch of Mike Oldfield’s iconic theme tune and the crucifix masturbation scene (*crosses legs).

If you’re unaware of the plot, or you’ve blanked it from your memory, it’s basically a story about Satanic child abuse – light entertainment this is not. A 12-year-old girl, Regan (Susannah Edgley) may or may not be possessed by the devil. Her bonkers behaviour prompts her actress mother, Chris (Sophie Ward), to call on the hot neighbourhood priest, Father Damian Karras (Ben Caplan) to help rid her daughter of the demon. Realising, the problem is above his pay grade, he escalates this gig to his demon-bashing big boss, Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas).

It is technically brilliant, using a mixture of screens and projections to create a vision of the demon and the shadows that torment poor Regan. It’s these, along with blisteringly loud bangs and blinding flashes of light, which make you feel the demonic presence. The star of the show is Sir Ian McKellen. Lending his pre-recorded voiceover to the demon – think potty-mouthed Gandalf, peppered with menace – the great man steals the show without even being there, snagging all the best lines. Genius move on the part of director Sean Mathias.

The Exorcist Bill Kenwright Company Theatre Royal Windsor Regan grabbing mum by hair priest on knees

A face only a mother could love (Image: Pamela Raith Photography, 2017 London production).

Back in the room, Regan had me when she turned the air blue. Susannah Edgely’s physical and mental demise from sweet tween to tormented devil child (familiar ground to parents of adolescents) was impressive, particularly when lip-synching for old devil McKellan and the physical changes needed to convincingly merge their two characters together. It’s a demanding role, with plenty of writhing, snarling and spitting, with industrial levels of hairspray and backcombing required to achieve hair that wild.

To my surprise, there are funny moments. Sophie Ward is a quality actress and plays the distraught mother, plagued with ‘working mum’ guilt superbly. But her scenes with Uncle Burke (Tristram Wymark) cut through the tension with a few laughs. The film was a chuckle-free zone, so it’s a welcome relief in a live theatre environment to discover some humour.

What of this hot priest I hear you cry? Ben Caplan is not Andrew Scott Fleabag levels of hotness, but he puts in a shift. I’m not sure he will set pulses racing as much as Adam Garcia, who played this role when this production opened in London’s West End. If I’m honest, it was the tall and chiselled good looks of Doctor Strong (Stephen Billington) who caught my eye. That said, we’re not here to fancy the priest. Phoebe Waller-Bridge has a lot to answer for.

The Exorcist Bill Kenwrght Production Theatre Royal Windsor shadowy figure of demon basher Father Merrin

Demon-basher Father Merrin (Image: Pamela Raith Photography, London production 2017)

Just Good Friends star Paul Nicholas (a hotty himself back in the day) plays the titular role as the demon’s nemesis Father Merrin. Nicholas cuts a stately, weary figure, but only has a few lines. They’re very good lines, full of fire and fury, but sadly overshadowed by Sir Ian McKellan’s booming voice.

Although I would have loved to have seen the walls plastered with pea soup during the vomit scenes (Oh come on, turn up the drama dial to max) The Exorcist is a tense, creepy watch that’ll have you longing for the safety of your own bed. A quality cast and technically brilliant staging make this a must-watch.

If this review has convinced you to go, then newbies can buy tickets for £10 and the bar’s whipped up  a couple of Exorcist  cocktails for the interval. By that point you’ll be grateful for a stiff drink.

 

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Fans of The Exorcist film and horror genre and anyone who appreciates a tense plot.

Not for: The faint heated or easily offended. Some scenes are disturbing, there’s a lot of creative swearing and its scary and jumpy in parts.

See The Exorcist at the Theatre Royal Windsor until Sat 14 Sep 2019 – before continuing its UK tour to Glasgow, Wimbledon, Stoke, Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen.

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