What worked most effectively about William Friedkin’s 1973 screen adaptation of William Peter Batty’s The Exorcist was its simplicity and immediacy.

Strip out some of the supporting cast and contextual window dressing - such as Ellen Burstyn’s ‘Chris’ being a successful Hollywood actress - and you have a very focused, very immediate story of a mother and daughter’s home invaded by dark forces, iconically confined to almost a single bedroom.

The primal terror of the sinister force possessing young Reagan (an Oscar-nominated Linda Blair in the film, a chilling Susannah Edgley here) clashing with the equally formidable bond of motherly love, the shaken faith of a recently-bereaved Priest, and even the dodgy ticker of a veteran demon-repeller. 

Sure, the title along conjures up plenty of visceral, horrifying imagery, and the bedroom set piece alone is littered with iconic moments - head twists, levitation, vomiting - that are mostly replicated here, but with so much of the terror of The Exorcist being internalised, immediate and intimate, how successful and impacting can it be transposed to the stage?

Thankfully (or not, depending on your nerves), in no small part down to some chilling sound and lighting work, an imposing, angular set by Anna Fleischle, and a couple of standout performances in particular, The Exorcist on stage arrives as a thoroughly absorbing, unsettling and frequently shocking trip to the theatre.

Narratively, it’s a faithful replication of the story as presented in the film; on her 12th birthday, young Reagan stumbled upon a Ouija Board in the attic of the home her movie star mother is currently renting for a film shoot. Through it, she contacts a seemingly benevolent entity calling itself ‘Captain Howdy’… 

The rest, as they say, is profanity-laden, bed-levitating, excrement-smearing history.

In fairness, that is a slightly egregious description - whilst possessed Reagan’s antics do get increasingly more violent and shocking, and her corresponding language similarly blue, much of it is courtesy of sound, lighting and projection work, and cleverly supplanting much of its possession to the disembodied voice of Pazuzu/‘Captain Howdy’ - an uncredited but terrifyingly loquacious Ian Mckellen. 

By the time murders have been committed, crucifixes have been desecrated, and the audience have traumatically wobbled their way through the interval, the eventual clash of good and evil comes with the arrival of the titular Father Merrin (veteran stage and screen actor Paul Nicholas), who, it turns out, has history with this particular force of evil. 

It’s here where the stage adaptation, much like the novel and film before it, really ratchets up the ante as the battle for Reagen’s soul (and, indeed, survival) rages fiercest, and whilst it doesn’t completely stick the landing - with some of the physical clashes and scuffles understandably written bigger and broader for the stage and coming across a trifle artificial as a result - it is nevertheless a genuinely gripping and frightening piece of theatre, and there are plenty of great visual moments peppered throughout that really cement the evil at work.

Crucially, where such a production could easily have jettied character and narrative in favour of spraying the walls with gunk and bombarding an audience with hijinks, The Exorcist actually retains much of its intimacy even in its more shocking and visceral moments, and remains compelling and convincing throughout thanks to a solid core cast. Sophie Ward charts the concern and eventual anguish of Reagen’s mother Chris earnestly and with an edge of world-weariness that comes to the fore when past traumas resurface, whilst Ben Caplan is fantastic as the jaded, conflicted Father Karras, struggling with his own faith and burgeoning guilt over the recent death of his mother. 

Tristram Wymark gobbles up scenes early on with a humorously camp take on boozy director Burke, Paul Nicholas brings calm gravitas to Father Merrin in the relatively short time he is active in the story, and as mentioned, Ian Mckellen’s vocal turn as the demon is by turns disarming, intoxicating, mischievous and downright terrifying. 

The real standout, though, must surely be Susannah Edgley in a startlingly transformative turn. She bounces around the stage early on, capturing the youthful naivety and spark of young Reagan buoyantly, before descending into the darkness and malice of her possession with malevolent glee. The physicality and erratic movement Edgley brings to the role is disturbing and unpredictable, but it’s the character with which she imbues Ian Mckellen’s pre-recorded dialogue that is really impressive. To essentially mime much of a performance with this degree of accuracy and precision is no small feat; to elevate the already-excellent vocals with smart character choices and delicious idiosyncrasies is quite masterful.

Although calling The Exorcist on stage truly ‘terrifying’ may be laced with hyperbole, there’s no denying it is an at-times distressing, shocking and regularly unsettling theatre experience. A palpable sense of foreboding and ecclesiastical dread greets the audience from the outset, and its a tension - heightened by the aforementioned excellent lighting, sound and design work - that never lets up right through to the finale. It manages to capture the terrifying intimacy and immediacy of its forebear, whilst still offering up plenty of jump scares and more bombastic moments, too. 

Ultimately, as a stage adaptation of a true horror icon, here is a faithful, scary and impressive outing. And at a time of year when many seek out experiences to make you jump, scream or get under your skin, some fantastic performances, great and charismatic staging and a timeless story of good versus evil all go together to make The Exorcist on stage a head-twisting, neck-snapping, frightful treat of a Halloween must-see.

...Just don’t forget your crucifix.

RATING - ★★★★

Runs 15th - 19th October 2019.

Tickets: 0844 871 3011​

Book Online