At the end of the performance, somewhere between curtain call and the lights going up, the woman next to me turned to her companion and said “I could watch it all again right now”. And while I wasn’t quite up to it (this was my third play in as many nights, I was tired and in any case the cast wouldn’t be able to cope), I recognised the sentiment. Because, above else, the musical adaptation of American Psycho captures superbly the nihilistic but addictive exhilaration of the end of the last century. You want more of it at any cost.
After the book by Bret Easton Ellis and the film adaptation (that gave Christian Bale his adult film career), the idea of a musical based on the same material seemed bizarre. In the hands of Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa (book), Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics) and director Rupert Goold, the story of a serial killer finds its natural home: an existential musical in the same vein as All That Jazz, complete with coke consumption, hallucinatory sequences and panick attacks. The first person narration turns Patrick Bateman into a soliloquising hero, co-opting the audience as an accomplice: we bear witness of the end of the millennium, with humanity having a heart attack at a coke party and no one is sober enough to notice. Patrick Bateman’s killing spree is the logical next step. “We do not all need to be here”, he says. He discovers, almost to his horror, he is right. Nothing has lasting impact, not even hacking people to death.
On a less existential note, looking at the 80s from the vantage point of the 21st century is an illuminating experience. A telling – and funny – sequence has grown men orgasming over typeface and business cards. A running joke has Bateman talking about returning a videotape to the video store. (My first job was in a video store. You could meet all of humanity there. Special mention for the guy who was renting porn and My Little Pony every single day). 80s songs are flipped onto their back to reveal their sinister underbelly. “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News never sounded so threatening. Or so funny.
Costumes and set (a box mimicking cold lifeless apartments, or cold lifeless offices, or cold lifeless clubs) are relentlessly bright. Relentless – in the best possible way – is also the word I ‘d use for choreography and visual innovation. There is something exhausting in the way this world lunges forward with nowhere to go. This could well be a drug induced dream. There is enough evidence to support that.
Matt Smith has a limited vocal range, but he turns this to his advantage. His voice, flat and colourless, becomes the perfect symbol of all else that is missing. His Patrick Bateman has a sharp, clinical intellect but is defined – almost entirely – by absence: absence of feeling, or desire, or interest. He is almost surprised in himself that he finds the drive to kill. Matt Smith has the gift of making absence compelling and has genuine rapport with the audience. Bateman is engaging company: a somewhat aloof non-intrusive host, if you don’t mind the spree killing. In the rare moments he engages with morality or human emotion, the result is that of an allergic reaction. Smith filters soulful trouble in nanoseconds. It flickers in and out but it’s there.
The remaining cast commits to the vacant emotional life of their characters with such energy it’s a joy to watch. Jonathan Bailey has a rich beautiful voice and a nice line in panic attacks. He also appears in a range of wigs, if you like that kind of thing. Susannah Fielding sparkles as Evelyn Williams, and manages to suggest intelligence even though Evelyn leads an intellect-free existence. Ben Aldridge as Paul Owen is a richly confident and suave presence, and Cassandra Compton’s Jean, the only redeemable character in the story, projects innocence without being maudlin or weak.
American Psycho: a Musical Thriller (to give it its full title) is a subversive pop culture dynamite. I doubt the Almeida run is the last we see of this production. In the mean time, the show appears sold out but call the box office. You have a good chance of getting a ticket and it’s worth the trouble.
P.S. There were enough moments of applause during performance, even though American Psycho is not that type of musical (or Almeida that type of theatre). At one point and at the end of a number, one person on front row started applauding but as things were moving quickly, it didn’t catch on. Matt Smith turned to him / her and said “thank you”. This prompted other people to start applauding, at which point he turned to the audience and said “We don’t need your pity”. Class.