Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Creating a nice line in terror


Opening fright at the theatre: Roger Warren (top left) as Edmund, Jonathan Richardson as Dan, Linda Neal as Margaret (Bottom right) and Jean McClelland as Rachel with Gemma Underwood as the vengeful ghost of Christmas past Sarah Jane, played by Gemma Underwood, hovering in the background.

The Exorcism

Hall Green Little Theatre


PREPARE to be scared, prepare to be very scared . . . well, at the very least, a bit nervy at times by this fine production of Don Taylor's chiller, The Exorcism.

Horror is not the easiest of subjects to stage; the trick is keeping to the right side of the line between fear and funny and this production manages it with aplomb.

Before we get to the acting the realistic set from director Mel Hulme deserves a mention as does effective lighting by Patrick Ryan  and the pair were joined by Roy Palmer for some nifty special effects.

The sound, lights and effects set the scene and encourage shivers down the spine at the appropriate moments which makes life a lot easier for the cast – not that they needed any help mind.

The setting is moved to the 1990s and Ed and Rachel are a successful couple who are somewhat ostentatiously displaying the fruits of their, or at least Ed's labour in the form of an expensively renovated weekend retreat crafted with loving cash from a once derelict cottage out in the sticks.

Spending Christmas day with them are their middle class friends, Dan and Margaret.

A few drinks, exchange of presents, convivial meal, a few more drinks then off to bed; a middle class Christmas enjoyed all over suburbia – except this isn't suburbia and five bed luxury executive homes didn't start off life as pauper's hovels steeped in history and dark secrets.

First hint that all is not well comes with the present opening when the scary music should tell us that this is not all going to end happily.

It's a bit like a TV detective series when you know the poor soul walking happily down the street might as well be booking a slab with a view at the ME's office just by listening to what music is playing.

Then we have Rachel and a portend of the doom to come with the strange episode surrounding her Christmas present – a Wedgewood blue harpsichord and a piece she plays instinctively yet has never heard before – cue scary music or what!

Then just in case you were unsure that hidden mysterious powers were at work (cue scary music again) the electricity fails along with the phone and central heating leaving the rest of the play in plummeting temperatures and candlelight – and, if any doubts still remained about supernatural forces, even two of the candles refused to work!!! And that wasn't even in the script!

Rachel and Margaret finding themselves in the middle of strange goings on

Even the world outside vanishes into complete blackness with our festive quartet finding themselves trapped in a world which exists only within the walls of the strange cottage.

With nowhere for our quartet to go and little for them to do we slowly start to learn about them. Ed, given a hard edge by Roger Warren, is a successful spin doctor from working class roots who, far from making his socialist father proud, has made him despair by turning his back on his working class principles and heritage.

Dan is a successful journalist, cynical and a little bitter about life's iniquities (not so much an occupational hazard as a common condition among aging hacks I am afraid). He lives in the present, which avoids “regrets over the past and apprehension over the future.”

His view of socialism is equally cynical: “"I think we should concentrate on how to be socialists and rich".

As lives are laid bare we find that what appeared to be a long-standing, close friendship between Dan and Ed was more of a truce, a ceasefire as the sniping between the two increases along with the tension.

Rachel is perhaps the less stable of the two wives and she really comes alive after the interval when she launches into Ed claiming he never wanted to buy a country retreat in the first place and takes pleasure in whipping himself with the vast amounts he spends on it, demanding the best, biggest, finest and most expensive of everything.

It that sounds like hysteria then you ain't seen nothing yet. Her portrayal of possession in a powerful monologue as the play reaches its climax is convincing theatre and a fine piece of acting although perhaps the ghostly figure of Sarah Jane (Gemma Underwood) in the background could have been lit a little less annoyingly without the blackout every few seconds. A flickering light would have served the same purpose with less distraction.

The only one who seems this side of stable seems to be Margaret played in a very down to earth manner by Linda Neale. She is not convinced by the supernatural and is given a graphic example of the powers of imagination when she is blindfolded by Dan who shows her the tricks the mind can play.

Dan and Edmund find friendship stretched as the tension mounts and survival starts to mean  more than scoring points

She tries to be the voice of reason and never panics which seems to be a family trait with Dan who looks for a rational explanation in everything that happens or if there is none, thinks the next best course of action and the solution to most problems is to pour a Scotch or two, or three and sit it out till it all blows over.

We have (cue scary music again) a ritual African carving Christmas present, wine turning to blood, turkey which makes everyone violently ill, but for a few minutes, skeletons appearing and just as quickly vanishing, ghostly harpsichord music all choreographed to lights and music designed to send a few shivers through the audience in what was a chilly theatre – whether that was a lack of heating or skillfully induced  atmosphere only the ghosts in the wings would know.

There are some political undertones about privilege, wealth, equality and the downtrodden poor, which is also seen in other works by the late playwright and director. The play, which was seen as a socialist ghost story when it first appeared, ends with the stones of the cottage enacting an ancient curse and finally taking revenge on the rich property owners. Now that really is negative equity.

On opening night perhaps the prompt was heard a little too often – not her fault, Romayne Instone  did her job, in quickly and audibly as a good prompt should  – which no doubt will concentrate minds for the rest of the run when hopefully she will not be heard again. To 04-02-12. 

Roger Clarke 

The play dates back to 1972 when Taylor wrote and directed it for the BBC as a series of ghost stories for Christmas and has its own tragic history. On April 2 in 1975 a production opened in the West End starring Honor Blackman, Brian Blessed and Mary Ure.

The opening night was not a stunning success and Ure was found dead from an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates the following day by her husband Robert Shaw. She was 42. 

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