Theatre review - The Exorcist, Manchester Opera House

The Exorcist
Photo: The Other Richard

The Exorcist Photo: The Other Richard - Credit: Archant

Clever and shocking but not scary, The Exorcist will entertain but not scare the pants off you.

Chris MacNeil (Sophie Parry), Regan (Eliza Capel) and Burke Dennis (Tristram Wymark)

Chris MacNeil (Sophie Parry), Regan (Eliza Capel) and Burke Dennis (Tristram Wymark) - Credit: Archant

I have never seen the movie. Not being remotely a fan of the horror genre I have spent a life avoiding all things terrifying, and by all accounts, when this film was released in 1973 it was the most terrifying thing people ever paid to see. Times have moved on since then, of course, and special effects have taken on a life - indeed, a whole industry - of their own. So how does this most famous of films translate to the stage?

It starts well. The theatre is chilled, a light mist drifts across the seats and the crowd is ready and willing to be frightened witless. It starts fast, with a crash of noise, we are plunged into utter darkness, which lasts just long enough to start us feeling a little anxious.

The use of sudden crashes of noise and bright flashes of light is a repeat occurrence during the play, sometimes we leap, sometimes we don't, but as a way of kicking up the adrenaline a notch and getting the heart racing, it's very effective. Indeed, the staging of this story wouldn't be possibly without some very clever work on the set and with the cast. We see rats swarm the wall behind little Regan's bed, a lily droops in immediate death, shadows move, the bed shudders and yes, Regan's head does a full 360. Just exactly what the audience was hoping to see.

The voice of the demon that posseses 12 year old Regan is that of the marvellous Sir Ian McKellen, who uses his wonderful rounded tones to conjure up the voice of pure, twisted evil - at first manipulative, before descending into screaming madness. It's possibly the most terrifying part of the play and his voice pouring from the mouth of Regan, played by Susannah Edgely, is well done.

Regan (here Eliza Capel) and Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas)
Photo: The Other Richard

Regan (here Eliza Capel) and Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas) Photo: The Other Richard - Credit: Archant

In fact, Edgely is without doubt the strongest character in this play. It's a horrible role, one moment childlike and innocent, the next vicious and crude and by the end brutal, screaming and someone else altogether. She delivers it brilliantly, swapping from child to demon and back again with a slickness that is quite disturbing.

But - was I terrified? No, not really. I certainly leapt when the lights flashed or thunder crashed, but that was shock, not horror. I didn't get the sense of creeping menace I was expecting, even hoping for. The latter half of the play seemed to be almost a bit, theatrical, with the abundance of shocks and shouts and projectile vomit and I never felt as if those faced with this demon child were themselves scared. Merrin, the priest who attempts the exorcism (played by Paul Nicholas) just seems a bit wooden and 'been-there-done-that.' Father Carrass, played by Ben Caplan, gets a bit cross with the demon-infested Regan, shouting and swearing and demanding answers, but there's no real fear. And faced with a young girl speaking with the voice of Sir Ian McKellen while her head spins round and she vomits at a 90 degree angle to her face, there should have been. Her mum is pretty horrified, it has to be said, but even she - between the scenes she has with Regan - seems to take it all in her stride.

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