Were critics spooked by The Exorcist?
We round up the critical reaction to the West End opening of the play, based on both the 1973 horror film and the original novel
Daisy Bowie-Sell, WhatsOnStage
"This new stage adaptation from John Pielmeier – who took the book, rather than the movie as his starting point – tries to elbow in all the thrills, jumps and scares an audience might want from a bona fide Halloween show and in the process loses something of the tension of the original. There are absolutely some excellent stage magic tricks from illusion designer Ben Hart, and some of the most memorable moments from the film (Regan's head turning right round is a case in point) are masterfully created. But the pace of the script, which is sparsely written and features no relatable, realistic characters, feels as though it is simply trying to get in all the film's main gross bits, rather than create a play which works.
"A mixture of screens and projections are used in certain moments to create a vision of the ghostly demon and the terrible shadows that torment poor Regan. It's these, along with exceptionally loud bangs, crashes and bursts of light, which really make you feel the demonic presence. Ian McKellen voices the demon with a fruity twist, perhaps inappropriately, but his disembodied voice is probably the most rounded character in the entire thing. Adam Garcia and Jenny Seagrove are both fine as Father Damien Karras and Regan's mum Chris, but though there is an attempt at backstory, their roles are see-through."
Lyn Gardner, The Guardian
"If this production actually managed to deliver the thrills, like a theatrical version of a fairground ghost train, you might forgive the complete lack of characterisation or the uncertainty of tone that leaves the evening awkwardly pitched between the camp and the uncanny. It grinds out the tale with jerky efficiency, like a storyboard on stage that moves not from one scene to the next but one set piece to the next."
"John Pielmeier's script goes for melodrama and stock characters, which leaves little room for any psychological depth or nuance in the performances. Jenny Seagrove wrings her hands distractedly as the mother convinced her child is possessed, and Adam Garcia as Father Damien Karras, the priest who is struggling with his own guilt and demons, looks less conflicted than if he is suffering from a mild toothache. Peter Bowles's exorcist, Father Merrin, turns up looking the part but sets about his task with all the urgency of a plumber sent to unblock a drain. Instead of building to a thrilling and terrifying climax the show limps towards its schlocky conclusion."
Natasha Tripney, The Stage
"Director Sean Mathias has convinced Ian McKellen to provide the voice of the demon. While McKellen clearly had a ripe old time recording his lines, his performance strikes a very different note to the whisky-and-nicotine growl of Mercedes McCambridge in the film. It makes the possessed Regan sound like a potty-mouthed Gandalf."
"The demon is also much better behaved here. Instead of hurling furniture, it upsets a single drawer. Regan, almost demurely, spews vomit to the side the bed to which she is lashed instead of unleashing a geyser of pea soup into Karras' face; there's no spider-walk and the levitation scene is abandoned altogether. Budgetary issues afflict the whole production. The famous staircase is another notable absence (along with the surely crucial "can you help an old altar boy" line) and a sight line obliterating black screen covers parts of Anna Fleischle's set during scene changes."
"Adam Cork's sound design is reasonably effective and Adam Garcia does a decent job of portraying the conflicted, bereaved Karras; Jenny Seagrove looks suitably distraught as Regan's mother, and Clare Louise Connolly impresses in the demanding role of Regan, writhing, snarling and spitting."
Paul Taylor, The Independent
"I mean it as a compliment when I say that this show is less scary than the film but that it's perhaps more profoundly disturbing. It offers the pleasure of experiencing a story that you love-to-dread told in another medium that traps the audience in the same space as the characters and demands that the famous "moments" (the projectile vomiting, the swivelling head, the violently shaking bed et al) be conjured up live. Mathias has gathered a great technical team."
"Anna Fleischle's shadowy, shuddery set shuts all the outside locations into one hermetic haunted house, with the awful cockpit of Regan's room at its centre. Courtesy of the excellent, creepy projection designs of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, the wallpaper heaves and its pattern swarms like rats; ghastly images scud across cascades of infernal smoke. Ben Hart's illusions cause drawers to fly through the air, flickering lamps to explode, and the girl to almost slice her arm off. "
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard
"Mathias savours the story's occult mood and creates some startling images that make up for the episodic thinness of Pielmeier's script. The walls of Anna Fleischle's set swarm with sinister projections, and illusionist Ben Hart's gruesome effects are truly 'special'."
"The result is an entertaining 100 minutes, the theatrical equivalent of a haunted fairground ride — not profoundly disturbing, but attractive to theatregoers who like nothing more than to squirm and scream."
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph
"We're not short-changed in terms of visceral atmosphere: there's abundant darkness, with bursts too of retina-dazzling light, much unsettling use of projection to suggest scuttling shadows, and Anna Fleischle's set pulls out all the stops in evoking a domicile beset by recalcitrant doors and electrics that go kaput in the night. The checklist of set-piece moments won't disappoint fans of the film coming with realistic expectations: we get projectile vomiting, violent bed-rocking, a dash of levitation and that famous head-rotation, up to a logistically achievable point."
"What we get further – despite the best efforts of the clunking dialogue to thwart it – is a gathering sense of dramatic engagement over 90 minutes. We may scoff at religion, yet the basic mechanics of the show require us to surrender to an idea of the supernatural. Moreover, the contested diagnosis of Regan's monstrous behaviour reflects a cultural battle about femininity: has she truly been taken over by Satan, or is she – as the first priest in attendance, Adam Garcia's Damien, suggests – manifesting explicable psychological disturbances?"
The Exorcist runs at the Phoenix Theatre until 10 March 2018.