Reviewed by Alex Wilde
Were we invited guests about to bear witness or morbid visitors returning to the scene where the horror unfolded?
Despite the comfortable seats of Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre, there was a strong sense of foreboding. Anticipation of the impending performance did not feel as it usually did, I felt uneasy – almost as if I shouldn’t be there.
The staging was pulling me into the past. Deep shadows, undeterred by the sickly yellow lamp light, emanated from the dark panelled walls of the two-story American town house. A thin mist swirled the foot of the stage, creeping upwards and outwards, wrapping its cold tendrils around the sparse furnishings. Faint and fragile moonlight rapped at the muted colours of the ecumenical stained-glass windows, illuminating the staircase as if in warning. My eyes walked up the rich oak bannister, which I knew would be cold to the touch, to the landing and attic above. Barely breaching this home, but raising hairs, was the haunting liturgical music and bells of a nearby Catholic church. We were connected now, this place and I, but despite this ethereal pull I was still safe in my seat…
How wrong I was. Terrifyingly, and without warning, the last vestige of comfort was ripped way and the darkness descended. What followed was two hours of the most spine-tingling, edge of your seat and unnervingly immersive theatrical storytelling I’ve ever experienced. What possessed me to come…?
The horror genre defining ‘The Exorcist’ written by William Peter Blatty requires no introduction. Based on true events from 1949, the 1971 book and subsequent 1973 film still permeates pop-culture today. Offending nineteen-seventy sensibilities, seeped in film folklore for the supposed hauntings during production and often lampooned, most adults will know of some of the shocking occurrences and certainly the sound of tubular bells.
Myself, having been born a decade following this chilling zeitgeist, have never seen the film, so I was fascinated to see how the novel and motion picture that shocked the world had been adapted for the stage. I am purposefully keeping this review plot and spoiler-free, because the events that unfolded were no less visceral and psychologically challenging knowing of some of the terrors. I would not want newcomers to have this affect diminished.
Following the shocking opening, the audience’s nervous laughter was not to be heard again. The intensity, rawness and sincerity of the narrative, actors and ingenious sets was gripping. The first half was so disturbing and emotive, that the intermission was a welcome respite. Souls continued to be shaken to the core and our understanding of good and evil confronted in the white-knuckle second half.
The cast received a standing ovation at the end of the production and it was beyond deserved! Without exception, every actor exposed us to multi-faceted characters, with their own inner demons – both current and historical. I was in awe of the skilful crafting of psychological, spiritual and physiological carnage that built relentlessly. Incredible performances!
In an age where special effects continue to desensitise cinema-goers, perhaps true horror can only be invoked on the intimacy of the stage. I cannot recommend this chillingly entertaining production highly enough; for the initiated re-live the dread, for everyone else who enjoys a genuine fright and gripping thriller – face your demons and book tickets without delay. Five fateful stars!
The Exorcist is at The Alexandra until Saturday 19th October and tickets are available from £13.00. One of my favourite theatres, you are always guaranteed a warm welcome in plush surrounding – arrive early for the show and enjoy the live pianist in the bar.
Tickets cost from £13 (plus £3.65 transaction fee).
The Exorcist is at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from 15-19 October 2019, for more information or to book tickets visit www.atgtickets.com/birmingham or call the box office on 0844 871 3011.
The Alexandra Theatre, Suffolk Queensway, Birmingham, West Midlands, B5 4DS