Stephen Billington

The Exorcist

05/11/19

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

Not Dead Enough

24/04/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Murder mysteries are extremely popular, particularly, it seems, when presented in book or TV form: police procedurals regularly top the TV rankings, and crime novels – especially series with returning detectives – are big-hitters too. Peter James, for example, has sold over 18 million copies of his books worldwide.

In my experience, however, such stories tend to be less successful when performed on stage, unless they’re played for melodrama and for laughs. Because, let’s face it, the stories are often ludicrous, featuring crimes of such demented complexity and ingenuity that they require a very strong suspension of disbelief. And the schlocky side of things is more exposed on stage than it is in other forms: there’s no easy cutting away, no close-ups, no internal dialogue.

There are non-naturalistic techniques, of course, which could more than compensate for the shortcomings, but in this production – and in others I’ve seen – these are eschewed for a more realistic approach. But, while I sometimes think this is a shame, in this particular instance, it seems to work. Okay, so there are a few awkward moments which provoke incongruous laughter from the audience but, for the most part, playing it straight serves the production well.

Bill Ward plays Superintendent Roy Grace, the central character in James’ “Dead” series. He suits the role, displaying just the right balance between gravitas and levity. He’s ably assisted by Laura Whitmore as Cleo Morey, who serves as both love interest and pathologist. But the starring role is – of course – the chief suspect Brian Bishop, played with absolute relish by Stephen Billington.

The piece is pacy, well-structured and very engaging. The two-tier set keeps us firmly in the world of work, switching between the police station and the path lab, with the domestic sphere very much off-stage.

And, if the final pay-off is as preposterous as it is audacious, it really doesn’t seem to matter, as this is a genuinely exciting tale – a cracking good night at the theatre.

4 stars

Susan Singfield