Pictures: Pamela Raith

The Exorcist

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Regardless of prior knowledge, popular culture and word of mouth alone have made it impossible to attend a performance of The Exorcist without any expectations. The tale is one originally inspired by true events and has been a novel, most famously a film – which caused cinema controversy in 1973 - and now it’s on stage, live and in the bloody flesh!

From the moment the auditorium opens there is an air of unease, ambient noises, whispers, and occasional laughter mixes in with the chatter of an anxious audience. All fears are truly confirmed by a sharp strong opening to the play, and the company do well to keep you captured from start to finish, daring you to look away.

Susannah Edgley introduces Regan MacNeil, a thirteen-year-old girl who is just that . . . Edgley gives an innocent performance with a keen playfulness and a sense of curiosity typical of most children. The anticipation is built wonderfully as Regan interacts with whatever’s-in-the-attic, and gradually lets he, it, that thing, in – but more of that later.

Her mother, Chris MacNeil, is brought to life with integrity by Sophie Ward. She’s a career-focused Hollywood actress in the middle of shooting, yet Ward manages to find the balance so that she’s not quite neglectful of her only daughter, but neither is she molly-coddling or motherly. Ward’s strength in this piece is the way she spirals into tragic desperation, battling her own demons as well as the one that’s consuming her daughter.

Tristram Wymark strides onto stage as the flamboyant, sell-out director Burke Dennis. From the moment he appears, the tone changes and he is responsible for the majority of the play’s comic relief. Wymark’s performance is warm and charismatic, the hug we all need after an uneasy start. Burke’s raport with Regan and Chris is one that let’s everybody feel safe. Wrongly. Yet even in a moment where something bad is obviously imminent, Wymark has us laughing.

As the plot thickens, or darkens, Regan becomes herself lesser and lesser. Fully possessed, Edgley’s performance is remarkable. Hearing the recording of Sir Ian McKellan’s voice means there’s a recipe for a lip-syncing disaster. Edgley rises to that challenge, and matches not only McKellan’s voice, but his expressions and mannerisms; every smirk, chuckle, and flail of the arms was done so perfectly that you could imagine McKellan giving the performance himself. Let’s not take that away from Edgley, it was still her performance, and she gave it with as much delight and relish as McKellan’s vocal talents offered.


Eventually it is decided that there’s only one thing to cure Regan: An Exorcism, and this is where Father Damien Karras is drafted in. Karras, played by Ben Caplan, is introduced intermittently during the first half as a doubtful Priest-cum-Psychologist. Caplan performs Karras as a man of reluctance and gratitude: on the one hand he is determinedly done with his faith; yet on the other he knows that this is the chance to rediscover.

Then we have the enigmatic Father Merrin , in the shape of Paul Nicholas who brings forth a character that you believe has led a life that could fill countless books. Whilst Nicholas gives a calming and assured performance, full of patience and a good moral compass, he also presents a fragile Merrin, who is past his prime and has seen better days.

The main cast are supported by Joseph Wilkins as a textbook vicar in the form of Father Joe, Patrick Toomey as the hypnotic, rooted within science, Doctor Klein, and Stephen Billington as Doctor Strong.

Anna Fleischle’s set brings a claustrophobic atmosphere as everything unfolds within four walls. The gloomy gothic interior of the house comes straight from every horror story ever told, and is completed with steep stairs, an attic, and a stained-glass window to remind us of the religious aspect of the story.

The living room wall folds into itself mechanically – or perhaps controlled by spirit? – to reveal Regan’s bedroom, which creates opportunities for trickery and illusion. The walls and ceiling of the room are an optical illusion in order to make the room look deeper, but noticeable enough to add to the sense that something’s not quite right.

Philip Gladwell’s lighting punctuated the play cleverly, turning heads from scene to scene. Harsh bright lights broke the scenes up, alerting the audience that every moment had the potential to terrify.

Adam Cork’s sound design fed an uneasy ambience into every tense moment. At times the sound competed with the actors meaning that lines were lost, but it certainly did not disrupt the wall of fear that was present.

There was also the projections onto the bedroom wall, designed by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington which much like Regan’s possession, were extremely subtle at first, like a shadow moving ever so slightly out of place. Later on they became harder to ignore as the room pulsated, and messages were daubed onto walls.

The special effects by illusion designer, Ben Hart were at just the right level for this production. Rather than everything gaining sentience every time the demon spoke, there were just moments here and there – once again reminding the audience that something larger than life is at play here.

Directed by Sean Mathias, the play kept a good pace and built the tension rightly, with enough payoffs to reward or frighten the audience. The dynamics between the characters and the tone of the action let the audience breathe here and there, and never scared for the sake of scaring. If anything, the second half felt too quick, particularly the final wrapping up of the play.

John Pielmeier’s script kept the story concise, constantly driving the plot forward; however, it struggled at times to deliver on certain aspects. In an attempt to prevent the audience from being spoon-fed, certain lines and reveals never had the chance to land properly, meaning that if you didn’t quite catch what the actors said, then you wouldn’t get a second chance.

A captivating play from start to finish, for newcomers to the phenomenon as well as those who have been onboard since the beginning. Even if the ending is a little rushed, it’s a performance that really does compel you to stay until all questions are answered. A play that will be disturbing audiences until 19-10-19. 

Richard Scott


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