Sophie Ward

The Exorcist


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Pah! Who needs to see a bonfire and fireworks in November in Edinburgh? There’s a surfeit in August and at New Year – and The Exorcist is on at the King’s. Yes, The Exorcist. So how can I resist that?

William Peter Blatty’s 1971 schlocky horror story seems quite old-fashioned now, but it’s still pretty compelling. For those who’ve never read the book or seen the film, it’s about a girl called Regan (Susannah Edgley), who – on her twelfth birthday – is possessed by a demon. Her film star mother, Chris (Sophie Ward), is at a loss: what has happened to her sweet daughter? She calls in doctors and psychiatrists, but they make little progress. So Chris appeals to the Catholic church, begging them to arrange an exorcism. Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas) has met Regan’s demon before, and the battle to save her is a brutal one. Pubescent girls are a recurring theme for horror writers, from Snow White (and yes, I contend that is a horror) to Carrie, but Blatty’s depiction of emerging sexuality is the least subtle I know. I’m pleased to report that this adaptation doesn’t shy away from the more blatantly shocking elements, indulging the demon’s potty-mouth and the misuse of Christian imagery. Bravo.

Technically, this production is very good indeed. The lights (by Philip Gladwell) are utilised to excellent effect, blinding the audience during some jump scares, and creating a queasy, uncomfortable atmosphere. Likewise the sound (by Adam Cork), which perpetuates a sense of uneasiness throughout. The special effects are cunningly achieved, and the timing of the voiceovers is impressively precise. This ensures the all-important scare factor, without which this play would die a death.

There are some issues though. The set, although it looks magnificent, seems unnecessarily complicated, with stairs leading up to a bedroom that is clearly beneath them. I like the two-storey idea, and both the stairs and the attic space accommodate important dramatic moments, but the pointless complexity of the lounge and bedroom being on separate floors is both disorientating and distracting.

There are also a few too many characters. In the novel and film versions, this doesn’t feel like a problem, but here, the stage feels cluttered with people who don’t add much to the tale. Both Joseph Wilkins (Father Joe) and Stephen Billington (Dr Strong) perform well, but their presence seems extraneous.

The second act is tighter than the first, maybe because the story is more distilled here, and there’s less of a disconnect between the highly technical production and the hokey dialogue and plot.

Whatever. It’s not perfect. But it’s a genuinely engaging, scary piece of theatre – and that’s not easy to achieve.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

A Judgement in Stone


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The Classic Thriller Theatre Company’s adaptation of A Judgement in Stone is Sophie Ward’s play. Her performance as Eunice Parchman, the illiterate housekeeper, is astounding: she shape-shifts into an awkward, secretive, resentful old woman, and it is her subtlety and nuance that lend the piece its credibility.

Based on Ruth Rendell’s novel, AJIS is a pretty standard murder-mystery. There’s a large house, a rich family, a slew of servants – and some policemen too. But some of its effectiveness  as a whodunnit is undermined by the fact that there are four victims, which so reduces the number of potential killers that there’s not much element of surprise.

The set is stunning: the attention to detail is incredible, especially considering that this is a touring production. The wooden panelling, the leaded windows: it’s all truly remarkable. This naturalistic single-room setting works well, helping to create a sense of both the period (the seventies) and the isolation of the domestic realm.  And the regular shifts between times are well-handled: the chronology is always clear. It’s a shame, however, that there are so many exits and entrances; scenes are never allowed to overlap; the past never coincides with the present. The  constant stage traffic feels disruptive and unnecessary, and isn’t always timed quite right. It feels a little old-fashioned, all this ‘then they go off, and then they come on’ stuff, and there are moments when we’re left with an empty stage, which doesn’t help the pace at all.

Some of the characterisation feels odd: Joan Smith, for example, isn’t credible at all. To be fair, the problem doesn’t seem to lie with Deborah Grant’s gutsy performance (she’s lively and engaging and very funny at times) but with who the character is supposed to be. Maybe the source material is at fault (I haven’t read Rendell’s novel), but it’s hard to believe she and Eunice would ever become friends. There’s no sense conveyed of what connects them.

Overall, this is an entertaining piece, with some strong performances from the cast. But there are a few misfires: it’s too easy to spot the supposed twists, and the whole thing feels a bit, well, staid. That said, the theatre is almost full, and those around us seem to be enjoying what they see. Why not give it a try and make up your own mind?

3 stars

Susan Singfield