London Theater Reviews: On Stage, ‘The Exorcist’ Lacks the Movie’s Chills

The presence these days of an American president who glories in deal-making guarantees the relevance of a play in which people exist solely as prey, and allegiances can turn on an informant’s dime. All the more reason therefore to wish for a greater sense of cunning and attack from a cast, the two principals in particular.

Mr. Slater, best known for his work onscreen, has appeared twice before on the West End and has an outsize gregariousness that suits the role. What’s missing is the chill that lies just beneath the charm, once Roma realizes that he is as much victim as perpetrator of the same hardscrabble ways in which he is so well schooled. Mr. Townsend, in turn, could amplify the desperation leading Levene toward a cash windfall, a set of steak knives — or complete oblivion. (At one point at the matinee attended, it looked as if the two men were trying to keep one another from laughing.)

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Kelsey Grammer in “Big Fish.” Credit Tristram Kenton

Far more attuned to the bruising affect of the writing is Kris Marshall as an office manager, at once inscrutable and implacable, who won’t be swayed from the task at hand. Robert Glenister is especially good as the most bigoted of these con men, not to mention the one who look forward late in the first act to the possibility of violence. For that fleeting moment, the sense of danger simmering within this play flares unforgettably to life.

Those wanting a bit of warmth and maybe even catharsis from their theater can beat a path to the Other Palace and the London premiere of “Big Fish,” the Broadway musical by Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics) and John August (book) that called it quits late in 2013 only to resurface here in a greatly scaled-down production that values heart over scenic razzmatazz and succeeds in jerking a tear or two.

“Big Fish,” like “The Exorcist,” also has a celluloid forbear — the 2003 Tim Burton film, starring Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney. But both the film and the stage musical share as their source a 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace about a son’s relationship with a his father, who is revealed to be far more than the extravagant teller of tall tales that his son has always taken his dad to be.

As on Broadway, this latest “Big Fish” devotes copious time (some may think too much) to the various products of the aging Edward Bloom’s fantastical mind — a mermaid, a witch and a hirsute giant included. The estimable director Nigel Harman, himself an Olivier Award-winning actor, is wise, though, to keep returning the focus to the gradual reckoning between the generations that makes for a tremulous finish, the structure in this case helped by splitting the elder Bloom into two parts: his bedridden, dying self (Kelsey Grammer) and his so-called Story Edward self (Jamie Muscato). In New York, the protean Norbert Leo Butz played the entirety of the character, an Alabama native from a town so small that its phone book is a singular “Yellow Page.”

The London production’s obvious big fish in casting terms is TV’s “Frasier” himself, the ever-winning Mr. Grammer, as a father whose love for his family becomes as apparent as his gift for elaboration. And even when the songs stoop to drearily pro forma paeans to daffodils, the score is exceptionally well served by Mr. Muscato, Clare Burt as Edward’s eternally devoted wife, and the clarion-voiced Matthew Seadon-Young as the son, Will, drawn to “bone-dry facts” who discovers not a moment too soon a welcome new world of feeling.

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