The Exorcist – Gaiety Theatre – Review
by Fran Winston
29th Oct. – 2nd Nov. 2019
The word iconic is bandied about a lot but it is a fitting term to describe William Friedkin’s 1973 horror movie The Exorcist adapted from the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty. It managed to shock and enthral audiences in equal measure and was considered so scandalous that it was actually banned in Ireland for over 25 years (if you’ve seen it you can appreciate why it wouldn’t get past the censors in Catholic Ireland).
I imagine most people know the story at this stage. A young girl named Regan begins acting out of character and when regular doctors can’t get to the bottom of her condition her movie star mother Chris turns to the church for help believing that something sinister is going on. Given the nature of the tale, it is extremely graphic. Both the book and the film contain highly sexualised and disturbing scenes. I must admit I was uncertain as to how this would translate to the live version without the benefits of movie trickery or the reader’s imagination.
It starts off promisingly enough as the theatre suddenly plunges into darkness which elicited screams from many attendees. However, once the story begins it feels rather rushed. We get barely any character development before Reagan (played here by Eliza Capel in her professional stage debut) is in the throes of the demon. Her distraught mother Chris (Sophie Ward) has little to do but utter “Oh My God” and although we dip in and out of the story of Father Damien (Call The Midwife’s Ben Caplan) who will eventually agree to perform an exorcism on Regan it feels more like telegraphing rather than any real insight into the person.
Top-billed Paul Nicholas (who you’ll remember from Just Good Friends) plays Father Merrin, a seasoned exorcist who is recruited by Father Damien when he realises that this demon is too strong for him to deal with alone. However, if you are a fan of his take note that he is only on stage for about 20 minutes and again you don’t ever feel like you get to know his character or what drives him.
Although the cast really does try hard, the script is on the hokey side. It feels rather stilted and never really develops a flow. Also, many of the American accents are rather grating after a while. Indeed the most interesting and well-rounded character is the demon who is voiced by none other than Sir Ian McKellan whose dulcet tones will send a shiver down your spine as the demon’s intentions become more and more apparent.
The first half clocks in at around 55 minutes and the second at around 50 which I found surprising. It felt like an extremely short first half and I’m not sure an interval was well advised as the play did lose momentum. Also, I was surprised at the point they broke as the famous moment where Father Merrin arrives at the house (the image which graces the movie poster and book cover) seemed to be a more appropriate point to drop the curtain as it would leave the audience with a sense of anticipation.
In the absence of special effects, they rely heavily on lighting and, be warned, this is extremely heavy on the strobe lights. So much so that it becomes somewhat tedious. At one point I felt the lights were doing more acting than the cast.
They do attempt many of the film’s famous scenes. We are treated to Reagan’s head rotating and this draws applause from the impressed audience. They also attempt to portray the projectile vomiting that features so heavily in the flick but alas it is not as effective here. Unfortunately, one of the most shocking lines which has taken on a life of its own (it involves what Father Damien’s mother is doing in hell – I won’t write it here lest it distress some readers who aren’t familiar with it) is somewhat watered down here and, if you’ve seen the movie and are expecting it, it really puts a damper on that scene. I was surprised by this as it’s not as if they shy away from the crude language so prevalent in this work.
This lacks the shock factor and chills that you get from the movie even after several watches. I felt that it didn’t push the material as far as it could and it was trying to reign itself in which was to its own detriment. Also, if you are not familiar with the characters stories from the book or the film you will find what is portrayed here very one dimensional. I don’t think I would have cared very much about any of them without the added benefit of knowing the background.
For the Halloween season that’s in it, this is good fun with a few forced ‘jump out of your seat’ moments thrown in. However, if you are expecting to be properly scared and shocked it won’t tick your boxes. Maybe for audiences it takes more to evoke a reaction nowadays. However, 45 years on the film can still reduce people to a quivering wreck so it is disappointing that the stage show couldn’t at least illicit some strong feelings.