American Psycho: The Musical sounds like a ridiculous idea and it is, but always knowingly so in this production, and it is the musical context that allows composer Duncan Sheik and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to play intelligently with some of the most important themes of Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal book.
The musical is funny – much more overtly so than the film or the book. The business card scene in particular is so ridiculously (and deliberately) overwrought that it makes the absurdity of these rich city boys’ lives extremely apparent. The songs are a mixture of 80s classics – Huey Lewis and the News’ Hip To Be Square, Human League’s Don’t You Want Me Baby – and those newly written by Sheik that expertly capture the essence of 80s synth pop, padded out with electronic drum beats.
Throughout the production almost every scene is visually stunning and tightly choreographed. Dancing accompanies the songs and the cast has captured the spirit of 80s dancing perfectly, it’s all in the shoulders and hair. Many scenes use projected scribblings and drawings – for example ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ scrawled in blood – that cover the stage and represent what’s going on in Bateman’s head.
Carefully selected colour schemes, often black and white, and the clever use of the stage not only make the production look like a Kraftwerk gig, but also remind the audience of what director Rupert Goold, who also directed Enron, does best. The set is always in motion, with revolving stages and trapdoors allowing quick and smooth scene changes. We open on Bateman’s flat with white light shining on leather chairs that look more stylish than comfortable and the nude by David Onica.
With lots of layered harmonies the singing is not always spot on, but there are a couple of very good individual voices. Katie Brayben as Courtney and Susannah Fielding as Evelyn in particular are not only excellent singers but they embody interesting characters too.
Matt Smith creates a Bateman who is, understandably, completely different from Christian Bale’s; he comes across sympathetically, in part because of the attention given to the relationship between Bateman and his secretary Jean (Cassandra Compton). The kindness of her character is a kind of check against Bateman’s psychopathy. As director Rupert Goold says in the programme notes “if you put a man or woman alone onstage your compassion just pours towards them.” Whereas Bale’s incarnation was one of polarities – from calm and relaxed to utterly insane – Smith is controlled and there is a deliberate, level consistency in the way he plays the part. He comes across as an outsider, studying the world around him and trying to fit into it.
Sheik’s musical does not retain the frightening relevance that Ellis’ book has. There is enough distance in time from the 80s setting to be able to laugh not only at the synth pop, the fashion sense, but at the murders too. The production is not frightening or dark or visceral in the way that the book or film is. Theatre is more artificial than film; musical theatre even more so. The stage setting allows for a high level of artificiality, accentuating both Bateman’s unreliability as a narrator and the fact that the world of Patrick Bateman consists of actors behind (herb-mint facial) masks, playing their parts and reciting their lines. The strength of the musical beyond the music itself lies in the fact that it is so unreal, so contrived, so superficial – Sweeney Todd for the metrosexual era.
American Psycho is on at the Almeida Theatre until 1st February 2014. Most tickets are gone, but some are being released each day. Check here for details.
Listen to director Rupert Goold and composer Duncan Sheik talk about the production here
Image: Manuel Harlan