This was going to be a review of the book by Bret Easton Ellis – but now it’s a review of the musical.
When I was a child, I would finish every book I started reading. Experience has taught me that there are some books that aren’t worth wasting the time on, and some that (for one reason or another) I simply cannot get into.
American Psycho falls into the latter category. It’s about Patrick Bateman, a New York banker who’s also a serial killer. I first tried to read it years ago, but gave up after the second chapter. I had thought that I’d be put off by the gore, but in fact it was the constant recitation of brand names that did it. Even if it’s supposed to be satire, people talking about what brands they’ve bought bores me rigid. I am not a label-slut!
Then I heard it was being turned into a musical, directed by Rupert Goold – and starring Matt Smith. Now that, I thought, had potential. Yes, a musical about a serial killer may initially sound like a strange idea – but it worked for Sweeney Todd, Little Shop Of Horrors, and (my personal favourite) Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens.
So I decided to give the book another go. This time I made it about 80 pages in before I gave up again. The designer labels, the pretentious food, the boring characters, their meaningless lives… Patrick is the only interesting character, as at least he recognises how empty his life is – unfortunately he resorts to murder to fill it. Possibly I would have found him less sympathetic if I’d managed to read as far as the murders, but sticking with the book in the hope that someone would die soon increasingly began to feel like a warped reason to continue reading, especially when there are so many other books waiting for me.
But I still want to see the show – to say that demand for tickets is high is an understatement. After spending over two hours alternately ringing the box office (engaged) or trying the website (server overloaded) I decide to turn up early and hope for returns. As soon as I set out, the heavens open – good! Less competition – not as many people are prepared to go out on the off-chance if it’s raining.
The train crawls into London. The nearest Underground station to the Almeida Theatre is the Angel Islington, which makes me smile, for I am Queen of Trivia (the Angel Islington is a character in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, played in the television series by Peter Capaldi, who’ll be replacing Matt Smith in Doctor Who).
Curtain up is at 7:30. I’ve waited for returns before, so I get to the theatre at 5:00. The box office staff are clearly having one hell of a day, but the lady tells me there may be a ticket if I can wait. I’m first in the queue, but only just – the next hopeful arrives about ten minutes later. By 7:15 they’re playing Talking Heads in the foyer to get us in the mood, and I’m getting twitchy – then box office lady calls me over.
Yes! I’m in – and in the fifth row. The set looks quite white and bare initially – but then a sun bed emerges from below the stage and out steps Matt Smith, wearing briefs and an eye mask – and goodness, he’s looking surprisingly buff. Maybe I’m shallow, but Patrick’s description of his beauty regime and wardrobe as he dresses is suddenly a lot less boring…
The first number, Clean, is good, but the next one, Cards, is both hilarious and impressively choreographed, as bankers dance around tables, competing to impress each other with their business cards. And then the ladies get their chance to shine, with You Are What You Wear (“No, there’s nothing ironic/About our love of Manolo Blahnik”).
Hardbody, set in a gym, sends up the pursuit of physical perfection. If We Get Married is also fun, where Patrick’s girlfriend Evelyn (Susannah Fielding) describes her dream wedding, oblivious to his murderous comments – and the fact that he’s having an affair with her friend.
Oh, I could list them all. Most of the songs are original (by Dunce Sheikh) but with an almost Pet Shop Boys feel to them. Where snippets of real 80s songs are used, they are sung by the cast. I particularly liked the vocal arrangements for True Faith, In The Air Tonight and something that was very nearly Hungry Like The Wolf. Soundtrack, please?
The staging is very slick. Two revolves and a central lift are used to transform the stage into offices, apartments, clubs, taxis, street scenes, the beach. The various tableaux of the elves/waiters at the Christmas party are ingenious, and must require some nifty footwork offstage. Good use of lighting and projections too, both to change the setting and to suggest the gore (rather less of this, I suspect, than in the book).
And Matt Smith? Anyone who’s watched him in Doctor Who (his physicality, the almost balletic way he moves around the console) would guess he can dance – but can he sing? Thankfully, yes. Maybe he’s not quite ready for Sondheim yet, but I’m sure his voice will grow more confident as the run progresses. He also manages to maintain a convincing American accent throughout the show. And any thought of him as the Doctor vanishes as soon as he has a threesome with a woman and a big pink cuddly toy.
It’s a complex role to play; Patrick is charming and attractive to both men and women, but also blank and chilling (when someone says the font on his business card has been discontinued, you know they will regret it). He feels that he simply doesn’t exist, and he’s not even sure whether the murders are all in his head. He keeps making remarks about killing, but everyone assumes that’s just his sense of humour. His colleagues are all obsessed with appearances, his mother is medicated – the closest thing he has to a genuine friendship is with his devoted secretary Jean (Cassandra Compton), who has no idea what he’s really like, and how close to death she may be.
Matt Smith manages to make all this believable, convincingly portraying Patrick’s emptiness, desperate boredom, and increasing instability. He clearly has a lot of energy, and it would have been easy to use that to go over the top in a role like this, but he keeps it carefully controlled, behind the facade that is Patrick, until it’s needed. Seeing him stabbing people on the dance floor, dancing with a knife and cleaver, and bringing a nailgun to a date will stay with me for a while. But by the end it’s hard not to feel sorry for his character – a sad, lost boy almost incapable of normal human interaction, struggling to fit into a world that’s lost any real values.
The cast are all good (a couple more Who alumni in there too) and make the most of all the comic opportunities. Since I haven’t managed to finish the novel, I’m not sure how much of the humour came from there, or has been added by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. It’s undeniably funny – the Christmas party, the cyclist at the beach, the dry-cleaner, Les Mis, the scene where Patrick tries to strangle a friend, who thinks this means he fancies him – I haven’t laughed so much at murder since Hobo With A Shotgun.