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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
AMERICAN PSYCHO
at Almeida Theatre

SLICKNESS AND SICKNESS
By RACHEL HALLIBURTON

  Matt Smith and Jonathan Bailey/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

American Psycho is a gloriously cynical slash across musical culture, a slickly shallow response to the blood-spattered nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis’ infamous 1991 novel. Notorious investment banker Patrick Bateman fetishises the honey and almond wash he uses in his shower, his Valentino tie and his Sony Walkman but sees the people in his life as inherently disposable. It wasn’t so much the grisly murders that gained Ellis’ novel notoriety as his ability to link a psychotic disregard for human life to the “buy it or screw it” mentality of 80s Wall Street. He himself has subsequently admitted that this was as much a symptom of his own alienation as of any driving satirical impulse. But the fact remains that it still feels relevant today, reading like a post-modern Gothic precursor of our troubled age.
 
There are some who now swear that all director Rupert Goold touches turns to theatrical gold. American Psycho – although a very different work from his summer hit Chimerica – carries all the hallmarks of vintage Goold, with its blend of visual chutzpah and filmic use of music. Matt Smith, of Dr Who fame, stars as Bateman, whose platinum card-tinged narcissism is emphasized by the fact that the first time we see him he is standing half-naked on stage, all pecs and designer aspirations. Es Devlin’s set – with its revolve function and central rising and sinking platform – is like a slick yuppy toy, able to whir us from Bateman’s apartment to a sordid New York alley and back with minimalist ease.
 
Smith’s challenge is to play a man so obsessed with surface appearance that it is as if he has left his sense of self behind at one of the many designer shops he frequents. “There is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some abstraction – but there is no real me,” his character declares at one point. The cleverness of his performance is that we sense the desperation of the spiritual void he inhabits at the same time as laughing at his man-as-capitalist-machine persona. Goold’s clever staging emphasizes the elide between Bateman’s pseudish surface and his psychosis. As he commits his first murder, he and his victim sink below stage to be replaced by an exercise class, all sweatbands and lycra-clad attitude. Later he rises back up into the class, this time shagging his girlfriend’s best friend with the help of a large pink teddy bear.
 
The fact that this evening – which is lighter on blood than either the novel or the film – is so enjoyable is due, in no small part, to Duncan Sheik, whose music and lyrics ably supplement the unashamedly tasteless 80s soundtrack. The song in which Bateman expounds on the empty liberal sentiments that will win you approval at any Manhattan dinner party “Ending world hunger will save face” is savagely funny. The musical rearrangements of synthetic songs including “In the Air Tonight” are also clever. New harmonies and exquisite choral arrangements raise them from lowest-of-the-low to almost-high art with tongue firmly inside well-moisturised cheek.
 
The production hinges on Smith’s performance, not least because part of the point is that his world often seems like a particularly unpleasant hallucination. Yet there are many other arresting performances, not least Susannah Fielding as Bateman’s hard-as-her-manicured-nails girlfriend Evelyn, Simon Gregor as the detective who refuses to accept Bateman’s confession, and Cassandra Compton as his good-hearted-but-not-drippy secretary Jean. You may view this production as a caricatured chamber of horrors whose amusement derives from the fact that the closets are filled with as many designer outfits as skeletons. But thanks to the chemistry created by both Goold and Smith it also comes across a (distorting) mirror to our age that we would do well to examine more closely before heading off into the night to chew over our views in a suitably fashionable restaurant.

 


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