“But the truth is no-one ever dare says,
You can never go wrong with the right Hermès”
The prospect of a musical version of Bret Easton Ellis’ cult classic of a novel American Psycho, already memorably filmed with Christian Bale, was enough to get the tastebuds salivating, well before it was announced that outgoing Doctor Who actor Matt Smith would be taking on the lead role which meant that tickets were suddenly like gold dust. And it is rather pleasing to be able to say that they are rightfully a hot ticket – not just because of an excellent lead performance by Smith as the nihilistic serial killer Patrick Bateman, but because this production – an Almeida Theatre and Headlong co-production in association with Act 4 Entertainment – is imbued with sheer quality from top to pert bottom.
Set in the midst of late 80s consumerism gone mad, Bateman is a New York banker obsessed with living the high life and living it better than his colleagues as they try to out-do each other with their ability to get tables at the hottest restaurants, work out to get the tightest abs, dress in the coolest designer clothes and win the all-important battle of the business cards. He’s got a society girlfriend too, Evelyn, but all the superficial glamour and glitz disguises a hollow core, emptier than his beloved 80s power tunes, and in order to fill the void within himself, Bateman has become a serial killer on the sly, butchering his way through any number of people that annoy him but still never really finding satisfaction.
And rather impressively, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s intuitive adaptation of the book and Duncan Sheik’s naturally 80s-inspired music and lyrics never try to disguise this or dress it up to be something more than it is. For once, I had a good read of the press reviews before writing mine and I was surprised at the number of people commenting on how superficial the show is, when it seems to me that that is entirely the point. The synthtastic tunes focus almost exclusively on materialism – a brilliant set of rhymes make the fashionista number an Act 1 highlight, ‘Hardbody’ nails the cult of the gym (Smith displaying an almightily impressive ripped body himself), the show’s thrill comes in its slickness rather than any perceived sense of should-be-greater danger.
And that slickness is hugely in evidence in Rupert Goold’s hugely witty production – Es Devlin’s fast-moving and double-revolving clinical set, Finn Ross’ all-encompassing video work exceptionally good, Lynne Page’s well-judged choreography moving an exceptional ensemble around this world of day-glo artificiality. Susannah Fielding’s Evelyn and Katie Brayben’s Courtney epitomise this perfectly with some viciously vacuous comedy, Ben Aldridge as Bateman’s main rival Paul Owen is a superbly strong presence on the stage and Hugh Skinner’s closeted Luis also delights. Cassandra Compton as the one sympathetic presence successfully manages to avoid cloying as hapless secretary Jean.
But Smith remains at the heart of the show, or rather where its heart should be, his fierce intent lightly played (at this performance, as at many others, he revelled in adlibbing his way through a set malfunction). That he’s not the greatest singer actually works in his favour too, a flaw in the make-up he can’t quite hide as the chase for perfection becomes increasingly poisoned with disillusionment, no escape seemingly possible, no facile denouement to give everything ‘meaning’ in the most depressingly conventional sense. And in a show stuffed full of invention, its biggest surprise is probably turning Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ into a beautifully haunting chorale that I immediately wanted to hear again and it is that which is probably the scariest thing of all!