Edgy, slick, pristine and as blackly humorous as it is genuinely thrilling, brand new musical American Psycho is set to divide and conquer as it soon makes its way around the globe.
I have to confess to being one of these people described in the program notes who just thought the story was a gruesome piece of slasher fiction. Inextricably linked to the late 1980s (and isn’t about time popular culture embraced this garishly overcoloured and outsized period), American Psycho is a biting satire of the soulless pursuit of money and all its trappings. Wickedly funny at times, its crafty trick is to make you laugh one second then cover your mouth, and eyes, the next.
From Pseudolus to Tevye, the central music theatre narrator we have come to know and trust is used to lull us into an affectionate relationship before coming in for the kill. Just imagine that Motel’s request for Tzeitel’s hand in marriage was greeted with a machete to the gut and a bite to the head from Tevye and you will have some idea of the chilling effect of this show.
Shallow, driven Wall Street executive Patrick Bateman smilingly takes us into his confidence, sharing his devotion to expensive designer labels, good food and exercise, and horror films. Chisel-jawed Matt Smith, as buff and hairless as a Ken doll, is an inspired choice to play the disarming killer. A terrifically talented actor, Smith takes it all in his stride – singing, choreography, push-ups, even a threesome with a girl and a big pink fluffy rabbit. Smith’s smooth face is the perfect mask for killer-in-plain-sight Bateman, and he achieves a piercing intensity when making eye contact with the audience. It is an absolutely sensational performance, and producers must be praying that Smith will be available to take the production to the West End and beyond.
Clearly produced on a fairly high budget considering the relatively modest off-West End setting, the quality of this production has chiefly been achieved due to the simple, but frequently unattainable, feat of having everyone involved on the same page.
Robert Aguirre-Sacasa’s book, based on Bret Easton Ellis’ infamously controversial novel, cleverly uses traditional music theatre conventions even though they jar with the non-traditional subject matter, achieving a successful juxtaposition of styles in much the same vain as The Book of Mormon.
Composer Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) has created an accessible, infectious score that pays homage to 1980s techno-pop, a feat easily identified when the band takes their bow and there are only three of them. Strong as the score is, Sheik wisely retains the iconic pop songs referenced in the text, deftly re-orchestrating them to blend with the new music.
Director Rupert Goold matches the wit and invention of Aguirre-Sacasa and Sheik, keeping the cast’s performances showy and brash, as befitting entitled New Yorkers, but also grounded in realism.
Cinematic dissolves, montages and cross cuts are achieved thanks to the ingenious set design of Es Devlin, lighting design by Jon Clark and video design by Finn Ross. The gleaming white walls and polished floorboards work as a style statement as well as a canvas for the immersive projections. A large central trap door allows a lift to deliver and remove sets, while a pair of donut revolves flanking the stage propel both furniture and actors in and out of view.
Tight, witty choreography, by Lynne Page, adds further amusement and invention, also aiding the slick progression of scenes.
A stunning act two sequence demonstrates the level of artistic collaboration on display. As Patrick goes on a killing rampage, he uses weapons concealed in the set, the revolves deliver moving victims, projections reflect the white noise in Patrick’s head plus the splashes of blood, the music greets each kill with a jarring clash, and the murders themselves are represented by gymnastic choreography.
Another clever moment comes in act one: after the first of Patrick’s kills that we see, the elevator takes murderer and victim down below as the scene instantly switches to an oh-so 1980s aerobics session. We cannot help but laugh with relief after the gruesome horror just witnessed.
The season of American Psycho at Almeida Theatre is sold out.
Photos: Manuel Harlan