The Exorcist Pamela-Raith-Photography

We review The Exorcist at New Wimbledon Theatre

Grab your holy water as this fright fest hits the stage

Like many a teenager, I watched in awe, horror and downright shock as the tale of The Exorcist unfolded on the TV courtesy of a rather grainy video tape. The 1973 film must have been over 15 years old by the time I watched it but it was a cult classic, and a rite of passage to get hold of this terrifying film and manage to watch it without leaping behind the relative safety of the sofa. “Did you see the bit with the crucifix?” we would ask in hushed tones at school the next day. The fact that it was based on a true story of an exorcism in 1949 in Maryland only added to our fascination.

So on hearing that the West End play, based on the original novel, was heading to New Wimbledon Theatre, I couldn’t wait to see it to see if it still had the power to shock – with the proviso that surely they would be toning things down for the stage.

Anticipation levels in the audience were high – most of an age where they must have watched the film on first release or via a dodgy VCR. And the tension mounted with the foreboding music, being startled with bright flashes of light then plunged into darkness, and a rather unexpected guest stalking the auditorium.

There is a huge challenge in bringing the story to the stage – not only in the supernatural effects but also the limited amount of scene changes you can have. However, this was done well, with a split level house taking over the stage. We see upstairs the drama unfolding as a young girl on the verge of her 13th birthday starts to experiment with a Ouija board and is befriended by a demon. Your skin crawls as you hear the demon ask her to play a game, to touch her, and encourage her to hurt herself.

Downstairs, her mother wonders what the hell is happening to her innocent daughter whose personality has changed in a flash. We see the guilt she feels over the death of a younger sibling, she berates the girl’s absent father, and then we feel her anguish as her daughter’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

Doctors are brought in, and when no physical or mental cause can be found, priests are called upon. A violent death occurs, and the daughter’s actions becomes evermore extreme, until, in desperation, the mother begs for an exorcism on her child.

Those who remember the film (and various scenes are still etched on my mind) will be itching to know if some of the classic moments remain. I won’t spoil all of the surprises but the projectile vomiting is attempted – but not entirely successfully. And the scene with the crucifix remains in all its violent hideousness. If anything, it is even more shocking to see this on stage – after all, we’re watching the character of a young girl carry out the most atrocious act, and, right there on stage, it appears particularly graphic.

Susannah Edgley is terrific as Regan, the young teen, particularly when she is possessed. Ian McKellen has voiced the demon, and it was impressive indeed as the snarling devil speaks through Regan, her mannerisms changing to reflect the new personality that inhabits her.

Overall, The Exorcist works well on the stage. It provides humour (intentionally), fear in equal measure, and genuine jump scares – there is a warning that this is not for those of a nervous disposition.

On one level this a genuinely creepy fright fest, on another, it raises questions about the transition to adulthood, mental health and absent parents – what if, as investigated in the first half, this was a tale of a truly disturbed young girl dealing with issues such as abuse, self harm and mental illness?

The true story on which it is based centred on a 12-year-old boy whose parents believed he was inhabited by his dead aunt. He was prone to blackouts and would babble gibberish, his school desk would hit those of other pupils, and he was eventually transferred to a psychiatric ward at a St Louis hospital. Records uncovered some years later revealed that an exorcism was carried out every night for four weeks, until the spirit suddenly left him. The boy never behaved strangely again.

I’d love to watch the film of The Exorcist now to see if it still holds as much power. A colleague who saw it recently – and who had been scarred by it as a teen – thinks not. It’s as cheesy as hell, was the verdict. In which case, catch the play while you can for a decent dose of nostalgia and a great piece of theatre.


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(top image: Pamela-Raith-Photography, image from the West End show)