Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Theatre review: American Psycho

The last two Doctors have both undergone remarkable physical transformations on the London stage at the moment, and while David Tennant's makeover as Alanis Morisette is... special, I reckon it's trumped by Matt Smith's ridiculously buff, frequently scantily-clad regeneration into Patrick Bateman, the titular character of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho. Smith's casting has of course been the only talking point ever since it was announced, rather overshadowing the other unusual thing about this premiere production: The songwriter behind Spring Awakening has turned the blood- and sex-drenched 1980s satire into a musical. When Smith's Bateman is first raised onto the stage through the trapdoor, he's perfecting his tan on his own sunbed. The skin, like the muscles under it and the clothes over it, is all part of the image that has to radiate success.

Bateman has a nonspecific, high-powered job on Wall Street, dealing with large accounts but always jealous of the people with the more impressive ones, especially Paul Owen (Ben Aldridge,) who's too important ever to remember Bateman's name. Life revolves around the newest and coolest clothes, gadgets and restaurants, and using them to score points over his friends. And in the evenings, for fun, Patrick likes to torture and kill prostitutes (and occasionally his friends.)

I've read American Psycho and seen the film, and though I don't think I (like the book's original critics famously did) missed the point that it's a satire, to my mind neither was as successful as this in putting across the pure comedy of Easton Ellis' story. Right from the off the heightened reality and ridiculously surreal nature of the situation is exploited in Rupert Goold's production, while Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's book and Duncan Sheik's songs give the cast plenty of funny material to work with. And although the '80s setting is ripe for ridicule, you can't distance yourself too much from the characters' petty obsessions: The discussion on business card fonts may be ludicrous but the laugh a line about Comic Sans gets suggests we're still familiar with the characters' obsessions.

Goold used to be known partly for being fond of a bit of gore in his productions, so one of the interesting things here is how (comparatively) little there is. He's said he sees the show as more Hamlet than Titus, and so the focus is on the utterly shallow world Bateman lives in, the fascination with objects which then shoots off, almost as a footnote, into him treating people like objects to be played with as well. Although his talk is often violent (invariably dismissed by his friends as some kind of joke,) it's probably nearly an hour into the show before we see him actually act on it. It's very effective, and Goold's ability to create dream-like experiences on stage means the show increasingly suggests that the murders may all be in Patrick's head - indeed, it's interesting when his smitten secretary Jean (Cassandra Compton) refers to him as being shy, and we see how the image he projects to himself and the audience may not be the one seen by those around him.

I really like Sheik's Spring Awakening music and there's a number of good tunes here as well, you can sometimes sense a through-line in the melodies but the style is very different - he's gone for a coldly electronic sound that not only calls to mind the era but, he says, he chose because of its inorganic distance. The idea of an American Psycho musical may seem ludicrous but on stage it seems an obvious fit. Perhaps what's cleverest is the mixing of original songs with the occasional '80s pop standards thrown in, either sung by the cast or played in in their original versions. Tears For Fears, New Order and, inevitably, Huey Lewis and the News all feature in among Sheik's catchy tunes, which start with "Clean" which recurs throughout as a theme, and end on the powerful "This Is Not An Exit."

Many of the cast are familiar to me, but few of them for their work in musicals, so like with the lead actor it's interesting to see how they handle the musical side of things. Smith has a decent, confident singing voice and proves incredibly charismatic in the anti-heroic role. Susannah Fielding is a different kind of monster as Patrick's girlfriend Evelyn, and Hugh Skinner turns out to have a good singing voice and is immensely likeable as Luis, the closeted gay friend in love with Patrick and out of his depth among the fashionable moneyed set. Jonathan Bailey is a bundle of coked-up nerves as Tim, the colleague whose breakdown and disappearance makes something finally crack in Patrick. With his character out of the picture early on, Bailey then gets to return in a number of background roles, and it's a shame the production photos don't include any of his hilarious outfits and wigs from these moments, or his brief cameo as a certain famous resident of Patrick's apartment building. (I've not yet seen a photo of the scene where Bailey and Aldridge get their shirts off either, which is a shame for other reasons, but I can appreciate why Smith in his tighty whities might steal their thunder on that front.)

Compton gets probably the biggest vocal powerhouse number near the end with "A Girl Before," but for the most part the musical has a rough element that contrasts with Es Devlin's slick and witty designs (the walls are lined with the VHS video tapes Patrick always claims to be returning to explain his disappearances.) Although actually the final show programmed by Michael Attenborough at the Almeida, the fact that it's directed by new Artistic Director Rupert Goold means it's being viewed as the opening show of his tenure, an impression encouraged by a major rebranding of the theatre to coincide with its launch. Goold's arrival always seemed like it'd bring exciting times to Islington and American Psycho does nothing to dispel that feeling. I enjoyed the music enough to hope we get a cast recording, and it'll be interesting to see if the production has a longer life than its scheduled run. Although the small cast (by musical standards) might be more noticeable away from this kind of intimate setting, and the downside of star casting could be that a transfer isn't viable if Smith can't go with it. In the meantime this is one of those shows I've anticipated for so long it could easily disappoint, but which manages not to.

American Psycho by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Duncan Sheik, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, is booking until the 1st of February at the Almeida Theatre (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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