Halloween is well and truly here, setting the atmosphere perfectly for a night at the theatre taking in one of the most terrifying tales there is.
As we took our seats in the Manchester Opera House‘s Victorian auditorium and acclimatised ourselves to what lay on the stage, the dormant set almost felt like a continuation of the green velvet stalls and ornate decoration.
The stage was set with an interior somewhere between gothic house and stark church, whilst dry ice and incense added to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Those effects led us to feel immediately immersed, unsure whether we were sitting in a theatre or a haunted church, effectively setting the scene for the unfolding drama.
Starting quite literally with a bang, and perhaps the most truly terrifying moment of the show, the theatre was plunged into darkness with a loud thunderclap. Several screams later and with the audience’s hearts beating in their ears, it was finally time for the drama to begin…
What unfolds does not quite live up to this thrilling start. Unlike the ongoing immersive terror of other horror shows, such as The Woman in Black, the Exorcist keeps the drama focused wholly on the stage. Not so much heart-in-mouth terrifying, but at times satisfyingly creepy.
Susannah Edgley plays a wonderfully innocent Regan, whose childlike voice contrasts unsettlingly with her increasingly disturbing actions. As she becomes possessed, she plays a very convincing puppet to Ian Mckellan’s deliciously camp demon Captain Howdy.
The scenes of Regan’s possession are the most memorable of the entire play. In particular, the Act One finale creates an image the audience is not likely to forget. Viewers of the film will have been expecting this iconic scene, but knowing it is coming makes it no less shocking and disturbing.
Uncle Burke is likewise very watchable. With a glass of wine in hand and a slightly disbelieving air, he provides some much-needed comic relief in the face of mounting tension.
Unsurprisingly the real star of the show is the voice of Ian McKellan as the sinister, at times funny, demon Captain Howdy. You get the feeling McKellen really enjoyed recording the laconic drawl, and he makes the most of every word. The result is unsettling, hearing a familiar voice saying perverse things from the mouth of a little girl.
However, McKellan’s brilliance only highlights the lacklustre performances of the live cast. With notable exceptions, the performances felt either quite flat or over the top to the point of tipping the horror into comedy.
Outside of the action of the possession in Regan’s green tomb-like bedroom and despite compelling effects such as bloody walls, shadows that take on a life of their own and wilting flowers, the scenes lost their pace and did little to maintain the momentum.
Whilst there were a couple of genuinely memorable scenes, The Exorcist, unfortunately, does not translate entirely convincingly to the stage. It does make for an entertaining evening out in the run-up to Halloween – just don’t expect to be chilled to your bones!
The Exorcist is currently showing in Dublin until November 2nd, heading on to Edinburgh before finishing up in Aberdeen on November 23rd. Get tickets to The Exorcist here.
This review was written by Jess Coney and Beth Aspinall.