On a Saturday night early in 1974, your reviewer joined the queue snaking round the corner of the famous State Gaumont cinema on Kilburn High Road. His critical faculties were somewhat addled by smoking a fat spliff beforehand (well, it was 45 years ago), but he had not gone there to analyse or criticise. He had gone there for a good fright. This was the film that people were saying was the scariest ever made. It was The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin. He was not disappointed. He was scared witless, and was so disoriented that he had trouble finding his way home.
Forty-five years later, would this stage adaptation produce a similar effect? It actually does succeed in conjuring up a real feeling of horror and disgust as an innocent 12-year old girl is taken over by a demonic force and turns into a loathsome creature. The claustrophobic set provides an eerie backdrop to the rising tension as the symptoms of possession become ever more repellent. The excellent cast carry the story along convincingly, as what initially seems explicable as psychiatric disturbance eventually compels a mediaeval solution repugnant to modern ideas. Susannah Edgley is outstanding as the pubescent ingénue whose language and actions descend into hellish obscenity.
The Devil, they say, has all the best tunes, but in this play he actually has the best lines. Voiced by Ian McKellen, he speaks from Regan’s mouth with his own mocking and sardonic tones as he baits Regan’s distraught mother and the struggling Catholic priests with their own apparent helplessness to save the girl. What about special effects? Obviously, they can’t achieve the technical wizardry of a movie, but there are some real surprises here – which I won’t spoil! If you have had enough of ‘feel good’ musicals for a while, and want a good dose of horror for a change, this play is for you.
- By John Pielmeier
- Director: Sean Mathias
- Book by William Peter Blatty
- Photography: Pamela Raith
- The New Wimbledon Theatre, London
- Until: Sat 28 Sep 2019
- Running time : 2¼ hours (including interval)