Review – American Psycho : A new musical thriller, Almeida Theatre

Thursday 12 December 2013

MainProductionImage_260x356Accident or design?

The words “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE” are projected across the three sides of Es Devlin’s stylish box set for American Psycho with the words “ABANDON WHO” appearing alone together on one of the sections.

Phil assumed it was a subtle joke referencing Matt Smith leaving behind his Doctor Who persona and returning to theatre.

He’s abandoned him with aplomb. If there’s any connection between the Doctor and Patrick Bateman in this musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis‘ controversial 1991 novel then it’s the ambiguity of those characters. But that’s where similarities end.

And who knew Smith was so ripped? When and how did he get into this kind of shape? We first see him rising through the stage floor in tighty whities and, for the more prurient who appreciate such things, there are other moments when he appears similarly déshabillé.

If the often repulsive, yet smartly funny satire of consumerism sounds bizarre fodder for musicalisation remember that other unlikely tales of horror that have been given this treatment. Carrie (which Phil saw in its original incarnation at Stratford) was horrendous of course, but the Whingers thoroughly enjoyed a reworking of Silence of the Lambs, Silence! : The Musical and of course there was Sweeney Todd. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Glee and the screen adaptation of the recent Carrie remake) provides the book.

Psycho doesn’t, as Silence! did, send the whole thing up, but what is most surprising is how witty and entertaining this version is, and this from Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics) who gave us Spring Awakening which was more a Spring Snoozing for us.

Bateman is a narcissistic Manhattan investment banker in the late 1980s obsessed with status and all things superficial: the best restaurants, clothes, art, music, clubs, cocaine, mineral water and also, behind his dead eyes, finds enthusiasm for err, Huey Lewis and the News and Les Miserables. He’s cold, withdrawn, driven and driven to become a serial killer. Looking after number one is top priority, “I always use an after shave lotion with little or no alcohol, because alcohol dries your face out and makes you look older.” If only we’d known.

If you don’t know the book just imagine that Anna Wintour had written The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. If you’ve read the book you’ll be wondering quite how they can do it. The show waters down the more disturbing graphic elements, not with ordinary water, you understand, it would have to be Evian, San Pellegrino, Sparcal or Poland Spring probably. Lynne Page’s choreography involves a bit of simulated fellatio and there’s plenty of axes, knives and staple guns waved around to keep on topic for the bloodbath that follows, not to mention the surreal sight of the company dancing with their heads inside Barneys’ carrier bags.

The music sometimes evokes the eighties sound and (rather boldly) real songs from the period intersperse the new material (including “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, “In the Air Tonight” and “Hip to be Square”) which must make the performing rights incredibly complicated.

Some songs are very clever, especially “Cards”. Bateman and work cronies indulge in a bit of penis envy style competition as they whip out their sonic screwdrivers business cards to compare fonts, paper stock and textures. Numbers also satirise eighties food trends, designer clothing and the pecking order importance of world events. Thoroughly amusing.

Rupert Goold‘s first production as Almeida Artistic Director (in association with Headlong and Act 4 Entertainment) is crisp, stylish, detailed and whips up a fair amount of tension and there are two revolves (two revolves – at the Almeida!) keeping the action flowing as slick projections (Finn Ross) evoke memories of his Enron.

The supporting cast are excellent, especially Susannah Fielding as the long-suffering girlfriend, Evelyn. Cassandra Compton as Bateman’s secretary Jean is particularly effective as the only character you really have any sympathy with. She’s misguidedly is in love with her boss which elicits a rare moment of compassion from him, albeit in a form of creepy ‘generosity’.

Smith is compulsive viewing, his sculpted face a necessarily enigmatic blank canvas throughout and he manages most of his songs rather well despite a limited singing ability. There’s something about his lack of vocal colour that works for his psychotic character. And speaking of colour, couldn’t they have stretched to a spay tan for him given the amount of time he is supposed to spend under sun lamps?

Bateman’s soliloquies build a weird rapport with the audience compounded by a couple of ad-libs. At one point Smith addressed someone in the audience who had sneezed and in a scene between him and Tom Cruise (Bateman’s apparent neighbour), a prop got stuck in the stage lift, “There’s an axe trapped in the lift. It’s an occupational hazard”. This brought the house down and (eventually) the lift up. Smart.

With the hottest tickets in town in Phil’s sweaty palms even Andrew couldn’t resist coming along this one and he nodded approvingly too. But, without giving the ending away, it does turn a bit strange at the end. Phil suggested to Andrew that it was probably “a bit existential”. Even though Phil has no idea what that really means.

It’s sold out at the Almeida, but – assuming Smith’s availability – a transfer looks assured. The rolled up money sticking out of our noses is on Sonia Friedman bringing it into the West End.

The book leaves you wanting a honey almond body scrub afterwards. The show is a different thing. Phil was torn on the rating. But then Phil recalled the Whingers’ mantra for 5 glasses, “could you sit through it again?”. He would. At the drop of a very stylish pair of Dolce and Gabbana underpants hat.

The rating would have to be very expensive glasses of Chardonnay in this instance. And we do know Chardonnay isn’t red; but blood is.


2 Responses to “Review – American Psycho : A new musical thriller, Almeida Theatre”

  1. npm Says:

    Saw it last night and thought it interesting but not exceptional. Smith was fine, the production was vigorous with some inventive touches… but it was very uneven, the original songs were mostly forgetable and I sat through it not bored but not elevated either. It’s a typically flashy Goold production of an interesting work, but as a show in its own right I think it’s something of a folly. If it transfers it will do so thanks to the dependability of the Doctor Who fanbase.

  2. Glen Morranjie Says:

    Fun, nasty and weird. As said above Matt Smith was very good, but clearly has enough to do. A colourful production. Haven’t heard anything about this transferring.

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