Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

To hell and back

<p class="p1"><span class="s1">Plus: were there any justice in theatreland this terrific production of Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude would transfer immediately to the West End</span></p>

The Exorcist opened in 1973 accompanied by much hoo-ha in the press. Scenes of panic, nausea and fainting were recorded at every performance. Movie-goers showed up to witness mass hysteria rather than to enjoy a scary movie. This revival, produced by Bill Kenwright, targets the early 1970s demographic. At press night, the stalls were thronged with pensioners eager to relive a lurid evening from their adolescence. As one who dislikes shocks of any kind, I sat through this ordeal with my eyes bent towards the floor and my fingers wedged so firmly in my ears that their tips turned crimson.

The show opened with a CRUMP loud enough to shake the theatre to its foundations. Everybody screamed. Then they all giggled. This pattern of shrieking followed by feathery tittering continued throughout. At times the bangs and flashes were so punishingly invasive that I felt as if my head were exploding. Crash-landing on a rush-hour motorway must feel like this, only quieter.

The story follows Satan’s plan to possess a 12-year-old girl and to use her as bait to capture a higher prize, the stainless soul of a Catholic clergyman sent to chase out her demonic captor. This strategy is based on rather dated moral assumptions. Gone are the days when Catholic priests were considered saintlier than the general populace. The show is furnished with all the crass apparatus of the horror genre. Creepy lighting, shadowy attics, eerie glimpses down darkened corridors, frosted windows across which horrid silhouettes may lurch at any moment. Everything is arranged to keep one in constant fear of some ghastly eruption of light and noise. The voice of Satan, uncredited in the programme, sounds like Ian McKellen doing a camp pastiche of silky criminality.

At one point I raised my eyes from the floor to see the possessed girl in blood-soaked pyjamas cavorting on a mattress with a silver crucifix.

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