The Exorcist

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When it it was announced that the stage version of The Exorcist was coming to Manchester I freely admit I was more than a little excited for a couple of reasons. The first being that this is one of my favourite films, when growing up the film had mystic about it mainly due to it being unavailable for some 11 years, to get hold of a copy was seen as a right of passage when growing up and when you finally did get to see it it did not disappoint. The second is that the film seldom out of your consciousness if like me you’re a fan of film critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode (Hello to Jason). There is seldom a week that goes by where the good Dr doesn’t manage to shoehorn an ‘exorcist story’ into his radio programmes and podcasts.

The stage adaptation from writer John Pielmeier, draws more from the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty more so then William Fredkin’s film. It tells the story, of Hollywood actor Christine MacNeil (Susan Ward) and her daughter Regan (Susannah Edgley), they’re staying in a big creepy house, in Georgetown, Washington whilst Christine shoots her latest movie. However, with Regan’s birthday coming up and anxiety of her estranged father not contacting Regan along with the strange noises coming from the attic not all is well at home.

Regan soon begins speaking of an imaginary friend, Captain Howdy, who she claims to have encountered her whilst playing with a Ouija board. Her behaviour becomes more erratic, as she self harms, uses profanity, urinates on the floor, and more disturbingly predicts the death of Christine’s friend the movie director Burke Dennis (Tristram Wymark).

As Regan’s behaviour worsens, her health deteriorates and with doctors, medication and psychologists providing no cure Christine is running out of time to save her daughter. In the meantime, a Father, Damien Karras (Ben Caplan) is having a crisis of faith, having lost his mother, feelings of resentment, regret and remorse surround the priest, as he comes to terms with his own guilt at her passing. A meeting between Karras and Christine prompts the desperate mother to enquire about an exorcism; Karras acquiesces to Christine’s proposal and so begins a battle to save not just the life of a little girl but also the souls of those around her.

Director Sean Mathias has done a great job of bringing this classic of the silver screen to life. From the moment you enter the theatre there was a sense of trepidation in the air, right from the the get go, there are some big jump scares to get you in the mood. However, these are soon dispensed with in favour of the more shocking elements of the text: vomiting, foul language, murder and the ordeal that this girl and her family are going through.  All the key elements that caused and still cause outrage to this day are there, of which I will not spoil, yet they still manage to shock even now, and I knew what was coming.

The performances are solid throughout, Susannah Edgley has the difficult job of an adult playing a child, which she manages to do brilliantly, she fully captures the sweet innocence and absolute horror of Regan. Sophie Ward is equally as good in her role, its one you could easily go OTT with, yet she refrains from doing so giving a measured but heartfelt turn.

If this were a Hollywood blockbuster, Paul Nicholas would get the ‘and’ or ‘with’ billing on the poster, but here he gets top billing for what is essentially supporting role, however Nicholas brings a real presence to his role as Father Merrin, an experienced priest drafted into help with exorcism ritual. It is a restrained, understated but no less vital performance.  Finally, there is the un-credited performance of Sir Ian McKellen as the voice of the demon, the potty-mouthed thesp, pretty much steals every scene he’s in without being even being there! If there is filmed footage of this being recorded, then get it online quick because it would look fantastic. A huge amount of praise must be heaped on Edgley who does an excellent job of lip-syncing with McKellen’s fruity dialogue.

However, for me the most impressive aspect of the production is its look, the team have created a haunting, atmospheric and terrifying space, from the iconic window, Regan’s bedroom, to the creepy house, complete with exploding lights, through to the pews and confessional boxes of the church this is lynch pin of the production. The scene transitions weren’t as smooth as they could be, with sliding panels but it really didn’t matter. To create the big scares and the more shocking elements of the play the lighting, sound, and projection team have done some fantastic work here.

This is a creepy, tense production that will have enough to please fans of the film/book but is also fine introduction to this controversial, yet entertaining piece of work, I would say that the more controversial elements will still create debate and polarise people’s opinion, but that for me mean’s it’s done its job.

The Exorcist is on at the Manchester Opera House until 26th October. Tickets available here.

Grease

Grease is the word Photo by Paul Coltas

Almost 50 years since it was first imagined by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, Grease The Musical still has huge audience appeal, for us oldies who share happy memories of dancing round their bedrooms pretending to be Rizzo mid ‘Sandra Dee’ to a new younger audience who simply can’t resist a bit of Greased Lightnin’.

The original 1994 London production has been revived by producers Paul Nicholas and David Ian ahead of a 10 month long UK and Ireland tour and boasts some big names on the bill, Tom Parker of The Wanted, Danielle Hope, Winner of BBC’s Over The Rainbow, veteran musical theatre star Darren Day and actress Louisa Lytton of Eastenders fame. Add to this direction from David Gilmore and choreography from Arlene Phillips and you have all the ingredients for an audience hit.

Danny & Sandy Photo by Paul Coltas

There were some nerves on show for Tom Parker who makes his musical theatre debut as Danny Zuko, next to cool as a cucumber Danielle Hope who made for an absolutely brilliant Sandy, Parker grew with confidence during the performance and is backed up by an impressive bunch of T-Birds with Michael Cortez giving a charismatic performance as Sonny, Tom Senior a suitably saucy Kenickie and Ryan Heenan and Oliver Jacobson delivering some great comedic moments as Doody and Roger. Of course where we find T-Birds we also find Pink Ladies, Louisa Lytton makes for a great Rizzo, full of attitude and sass her acting ability seriously impresses, while her voice isn’t as strong as the rest of her girl gang her feisty performance and slick dancing embody absolutely the rebellious Rizzo we all know and love so well. Pink Ladies Rhiannon Chesterman (Frenchy), Rosanna Harris (Jan) and Lauren Atkins (Marty) are all exceptional; they each deliver fine performances and suit their roles perfectly.

Grease Vince Photo by Paul Coltas

When the ensemble cast are on stage is when this production is at its absolute best, from bursting onto the stage full of confidence and attitude for Grease Is the Word right through to the classic You’re The One That I Want, Arlene Phillips’ choreography is slick and delivered with precision, the stage literally lights up with each of these brilliantly staged scenes. The school dance scene is particularly impressive with a great performance from Natasha Mould as the infamous Cha Cha. We also see Darren Day as both Teen Angel/Vince, Day’s vocals are strong and he has huge audience appeal however there’s a couple of odd moments where he breaks into a Jim Carey ‘The Mask’ impression then later Austin Powers, something I’d hope is ditched as the show develops it just didn’t fit with the production whatsoever.

Grease T Birds Photo by Paul Coltas

This is a production that delivers some brilliant performances, as the cast grow in confidence over the next ten months it will no doubt develop into a finely greased machine (sorry I couldn’t resist) with ensemble pieces really packing a punch, and sublime vocals from the seriously talented Danielle Hope, Grease is a fabulous fun night out that will leave you on a high, reminiscing about your very own days as a teen angel.

On at The Palace Theatre until Saturday 25th March tickets available via the link below;

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/grease-2017/palace-theatre-manchester/