The Exorcist: UK Premiere at The Rep, Birmingham

The Exorcist: UK Premiere at The Rep, Birmingham

This week we went to go and see the UK premiere of The Exorcist at The Rep in Birmingham. Here is what our very own, Kevin Urquhart thought:

The Exorcist was released in 1973 and gained notoriety from the outset, thrilling and chilling cinema-goers, causing widespread fainting and vomiting, so disturbing was the film that depicts the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl, Regan and the subsequent exorcism. It resulted in many local councils banning the film and is still widely regarded as being one of the most disturbing films of all time.

Like so many of a certain age and bent, The Exorcist holds a very dear place in my heart.  I was first exposed to the film in the 90’s when visiting the hell-hole that is Stoke.  It was the first time the dust had been blown off its covers for decades and it was deliciously dark for a teen with a penchant for the supernatural.  It didn’t disappoint and has endured as one of my go-to horror films ever since.

Which was exactly why I was so excited when I learned The Rep in Birmingham was bringing it to the stage in a UK premiere, in association with Bill Kenwright.  Taking any epic, legendary, genre defining film and making it stage-ready is nothing new.  In recent months, we’ve witnessed, with varying degrees of success, adaptations of Legally Blonde, Grease, Ghost and many more.  To take The Exorcist from the silver screen to the stage was a different matter entirely and one that required, er, guts.

The show starts in dramatic fashion: there is a deafening thunderclap and the auditorium is plunged into blackness and silence.  This silence is consuming, it’s uncomfortable and a brilliant way to get the audience on edge.  It must last for at least two minutes before slowly we see the opening shot, which, as per the film, is on an archaeological dig with Father Merrin, played by Peter Bowles.

Clare Louise Connolly takes on the role of Regan; the twelve-year-old who is subjected to the demonic possession.   Despite being, arguably, the youngest member of the cast, Connolly is the glue to which the production bonds.  Jenny Seagrave plays her potty-mouthed mother, Chris, and has clearly taken inspiration from the film, which was the right thing to do.

What did veer from the film and book – I’ll have to go back and check – was how explicitly it painted a picture of child abuse with the young Regan (whilst possessed, admittedly) accusing the priest of touching her.  It doesn’t stop there: family friend and film director, ‘Uncle’ Burke – played wonderfully by Tristram Wymark – also stepped over the line into inappropriate language and proximity to the youth.  Don’t let this define the show for you, far from it, as it may be more a case of how our perceptions have changed since the film was created, but it did make uncomfortable viewing.

Props must go to the staging, sound and lighting for taking us to the edge of our seats, but I have to admit, they didn’t take me off it.   They say the devil is in the detail and this couldn’t be more true.  What would’ve tipped me over the proverbial edge would have been more light and shade in the tone and delivery.  Sometimes the demonisation needed more drama and to be bigger.  Take for example the final scene – we all know it, so this is no spoiler – but when Father Damien Karras takes his own life to stop the devil in his tracks, it was too subtle and cinematic.  It needed a bigger, more convincing theatre-style conclusion and one that would reach the back of the auditorium.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and I’m only picking it apart because I know the film and book so very well.  I would whole-heartedly urge you to go and see it; this is one of the most successful adaptations of film to theatre that we’ve seen in years.  It is challenging, disturbing and dark and should be missed at your own peril…

The Exorcist is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until November 5th. Tickets:  0121 236 4455 / Birmingham-rep.co.uk

All photos copyright credit: ROBERT DAY