When the first wave of so-called ‘movie brat’ film directors began to break through in the 70s, it often seemed to be with ingeniously crowd-pleasing adaptations of successful mass-market novels. An unintended consequence has been that books like Jaws and The Godfather have, I rather suspect, rarely been read since. William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist was such an event movie (even if the term had barely been invented at the time) that it has completely overshadowed William Peter Blatty’s 1971 book. So it’s now perfectly possible for playwright John Pielmeier to argue that this stage play is based on the novel, not the film, without much likelihood of his assertion being challenged.

As a veteran of the movie wars of the 70s (and a man who only recently felt compelled to remind himself of how inferior to its source film, The Wages Of Fear, was Friedkin’s later film Sorcerer) I certainly have no intention of doing so but rather, taking Pielmeier at his word that this is indeed closer to the book than the film, would like to thank him for disabusing me of the faintest notion that I might one day want to read said book. On this evidence, it must be a dull old scare-free zone, weighed down with half-hearted, half-baked philosophical ponderings, although it’s difficult to imagine that such a jolly bad demon, possibly even the Devil himself, can be quite as camp in the book as the pre-recorded voice he’s been given here by dear, dear Ian McKellen.

There were the sort of scares in this production you can easily engender by abruptly plunging an auditorium into blackout then making some loud bangs. There was also some rather grotesque unpleasantness involving rape by crucifix that might easily make you feel sick. It was also a bit terrifying to see so many punters going out noisily mid-performance, presumably to relieve rather than compose themselves, and then coming back just along the front of the stage. But, free of thrills if not unpleasant spills, pretty much all we have here is a dark tale of a little girl on the verge of puberty, Regan McNeill (Susannah Edgeley), unwisely indulging in a game with an invisible, fruity-voiced old geezer in the attic (I mean, what could possibly go wrong?) then promptly developing the sort of symptoms – spinning head, projectile vomiting, extreme ‘parental advisory’ language, dubious notions about decorating their room and, erm, murder – that might be put down to a truly monumental teenage sulk (okay, maybe not that last one) or pretty obvious mental problems by movie actor mum Chris (Sophie Ward), who’s pretty highly-strung herself, and family friend Burke Dennis (Tristram Wymark), a film director who’s as fond of the booze as he seems to be of his surrogate daughter.

Instead, a succession of faith-doubting priests and indecisive doctors are called in to variously prognosticate and prevaricate before, finally, the big religious gun who just happens to be in the area, the exorcist Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas) gets called into play halfway through the last act, so God and the Devil can have a big old shouting match. There’s a bit more death and unpleasantness with crucifixes to come but it’s all pretty ludicrous and singularly unfrightening, unless you’re really, really determined to give yourself the willies. Disappointingly, it also manages to take itself far too seriously, despite Ian McKellen’s apparent non-receipt of that particular memo. Maybe, like my wife, he thought this was going to be a musical version.

By Kevin Bourke

Photos by The Other Richard

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The Exorcist is Manchester Opera House until October 26, 2019. For more information, click here.