The Exorcist - Milton Keynes Theatre (atgtickets.com)
If you’re a fan of William Friedkin’s 1973 landmark horror film there are three things you want to know about any attempt at a stage version: do we get the 360 degree head-spinny thing, how do they manage the puking and what about That Bit With The Crucifix? Yup, they’re all there and achieved with some aplomb.

In fact this production, adapted by John Pielmeier from William Peter Blatty’s original novel, parallels the film’s structure to a great degree and tells the tale of a teenage girl possessed by a demon at a fair old clip. It’s never going to be as terrifying or thought- provoking as the movie: time and changes to society have seen to that, but what you get is an exhilarating and entertaining ghost-train ride of an evening in which the screams just about exceed the laughter and the melodrama makes your flesh creep agreeably. This atmosphere was particularly enhanced at the MK performance as the bar pianist in the foyer iced the atmosphere by expertly tinkling out the theme music to the movie (Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells) and then followed it up with the theme from Ghostbusters. The man deserves a raise.

Sean Mathias’s production has technical virtuosity at its heart. The show begins with a bang –literally – and some bits of business among the audience in the pitch black set off a wave of screams. Mathias’s  subsequent use of light, stage tricks, screen effects and, above all, sound ratchet the slow-burn tension by degrees. On the subject of sound, Ian McKellen’s uncredited pre-recorded voiceover as the demon is a genuine show-stopper. This is a smooth devil – by turns unctuous, seductive controlling and arch, but always with the requisite whiff of sulphur. The set admirably  conveys the spirit of seedy rented gothic and offers an effective opening out of a story in which most of the action takes place in a pre-teen’s bedroom.

If you haven’t seen the film the tale runs like this: a young girl, Regan (Susannah Edgley, brilliantly unnerving and psychotic), is possessed by a demon, who is gradually revealed as the Devil himself. Her progressively disinhibited and terrorising personality swings prompt her film-star mother Chris (Sophie Ward, who does a good line in gibbering maternal insecurity) to call in All The Medical Science Known To Mankind but to no avail. When the rational fails she recruits a hip, young, two-fisted local priest Father Damien Karras (Ben Caplan, a solid, grounded performance laden with guilt, doubt and compassion), who, after coming off worst in a metaphysical tussle with The Horned One, gets back-up in the form of the Ant Middleton of demon-smiters, Father Lankester Merrin.

Father Merrin is played by Paul Nicholas. Yes, I know! The casting of an actor known more for musicals and comedy is a terrific piece of work and as Merrin, who has vanquished Old Nick on previous occasions much to the Devil’s chagrin, he artfully conveys the idea of a spiritual gunslinger heading for a final showdown.

All said, it’s not an ambitious production in the sense that it hardly deviates from the film but there’s been some real thought put into making the show something you’re glad to have laid out your hard-earned cash for.

And if the bar pianist had played Dancing With The Captain my evening would have been complete.

The Exorcist is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday October 12. This production is not suitable for anyone under the age of 15 or for those of a nervous disposition.