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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
AMERICAN PSYCHO
at Almeida Theatre

MURDERS AND EXECUTIONS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Matt Smith and Jonathan Bailey/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

The only other serial killer I can recall in a musical is razor-slasher Sweeney Todd. Now along comes Patrick Bateman, the central character of American Psycho, who ups the murderous ante by using a chainsaw and an axe.
 
Brett Easton-Ellis’ controversial 1991 novel was an instant bestseller, less for the quality of the writing than for the publicity surrounding its violent, flagrantly misogynistic content. Several female staff members of Simon and Schuster, who published it, resigned in protest and overnight the book became something of a cause celebre.
 
It’s satirical content was largely overshadowed by its Grand Guignol tactics, as Bateman, an ambitious 26-year-old banker in Manhattan in the late 1980s, embarks on a killing spree that sees him morph from a man involved in “mergers and acquisitions” to a psycho driven to “murder and executions.”
 
High-powered and on the cusp of earning millions, Bateman’s competitive world is devoted to superficial accoutrements denoting material success such as brand-name clothing and accessories, designer business cards and toiletries, membership to the best gym, and the ability to acquire last-minute tickets and reservations to sold-out shows and fully booked restaurants. He also has an attractive, equally materialistic trophy girlfriend.
 
But is he happy? Of course not. His selfishness, nihilism, basic insecurity, complete lack of ordinary human feelings and absorption in status, and superficiality turn him into a serial killer. His first victim is a homeless foul-smelling tramp, followed by prostitutes and whores, then people of his own class – most notably Paul Owen, a personable, even better-connected competitor who has mistaken Bateman (a “douche bag” in Owen’s view) for someone else.
 
Why, then, when these murders and executions finally begin to overwhelm him and he confesses his crimes to a suspicious detective, is he not believed?
 
As in the novel and the 2000 film version, this vital question remains unanswered in the musical: Did the killings really happen or are they just grotesque hallucinations?
 
The conundrum remains unresolved in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s skilful adaptation and, as directed – quite brilliantly – by Rupert Goold (the new artistic honcho of the Almeida Theatre) this version is far less graphic or shocking than either the novel or the film. The killings are staged in a very stylised fashion, with blood-spatter kept to a minimum.
 
So much so that, apart from a scene in which Bateman invites his secretary Jean to his fancy Manhattan apartment with the intention of murdering her, there is no palpable suspense or tension. And even though the scene between Jean and Bateman ends with him sending her home unharmed after she confesses her love for him, there’s a genuine frisson of danger in the encounter.
 
What always keeps you riveted and involved, though, is Matt Smith’s transfixing central performance as the tortured and torturing Patrick Bateman. He is the musical’s centre of gravity, and trying to penetrate the character’s dangerously sick mind is the mainstay of the narrative. To be sure, his singing voice won’t secure him a recording contract, but the fact that he can sing at all is something of a bonus.
 
The attractive cast also includes Ben Aldredge as Paul Owen, Cassandra Compton as Bateman’s secretary Jean, Susannah Fielding as his girlfriend Evelyn and Hugh Skinner as Luis, unrequitedly in love with Bateman since their college days.
 
Though hardly overflowing with melody, Duncan Sheik’s electronic score is evocative of the late 1980s. A pity though, that his lyrics are often trite, and worse, sloppy, with half-rhymes such as “shine/time” and “insane/ name.” Stephen Sondheim would not approve.
 
Es Devlin has designed a striking box-like set with a mini revolve and flexible panels onto which Jon Clark projects some mood-enhancing images appropriate to Bateman’s troubled state of mind.
 
Despite the occasional longueur, it is Smith’s stand-out performance, Goold’s mesmeric direction and the visually dazzling look of the piece that make American Psycho something of an event. A West End transfer would appear to be inevitable.

 


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SCHEDULE UPDATES -
Yes, Prime Minister contracts its run, while A Chorus Line expands its own.
POWERHOUSE OF THEATRE - After 11 years as the Almeida Theatre's artistic director, Michael Attenborough is stepping down to focus on directing. 

SONGS FROM THE HEART - Once the Tony-Award winning musical is set to hit London in January.


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