Sunday 29 December 2013

American Psycho @ The Almeida Theatre

American Psycho has been labelled a 'musical thriller', a label it shares with Sondheim's masterfully sinister Sweeney Todd.  And that's not the only thing these theatrical horrors have in common: a thoroughly dark tone that juxtaposes violence with humour, and a psychotic, villainous anti-hero.

Based on the 1989 novel by Bret Easton Ellis (later adapted for film starring Christian Bale), American Psycho is a dark satire on capitalism in 1980s Wall Street and the superficial, hedonistic lives its inhabitants lead.  The women are shallow and plastic hardbodies; the men are narcissistic suits forever striving for an empty perfection, obsessed with labels, trophy women, elitist restaurants and status.  Within this twisted vision of the American Dream, we follow the mysterious, misogynistic serial killer Patrick Bateman (Matt Smith) whose ennui with life manifests in psychotic bloodlust.  For him, "every pleasure is a bore", he simply kills to "kill time".

Director Rupert Goold has downplayed the brutal violence of the novel - cleverly, his production is devoid of actual blood.  The narrative therefore takes on a deeper, more psychological tone, the action playing out as one long murderous fantasy as we question the boundaries between Bateman's reality and our own.  The stark, monochrome set, sharply lit with projected backdrops, is a suitable reflection of his mind: like Bateman, it is visually stunning yet cold, sterile and artificial.

This is similarly reflected in Duncan Sheik's pulsing electronic score.  The novel is filled with pop music references and, appropriately, Sheik has fused new arrangements of '80s classics with his own original songs - one scene sees Bateman's murders spurred on by a choir of suits and misfits singing a haunting, a capella arrangement of In The Air Tonight.  The heavy influence of the likes of Depeche Mode, The Human League and New Order is clear in the dance synths and programmed beats, the original songs perfectly suiting the period style.  Equally, with '80s music being so prominent in current pop, the score is utterly contemporary to today - one song that lists fashion designers bests similarly fashion-focused songs on Lady Gaga's recent album.  American Psycho might be a period piece, but it's incredibly modern and relevant both musically and thematically.

Smith might not be the best technical singer, but it's hardly necessary with this pop score.  He croons in a dull, flat monotone that matches the character's bored persona (bringing to mind Morrisey's vocal delivery), whilst his movement has a natural awkwardness that adds believable humanity to such a psychotic role.  Yet even when silent, there's a terrifying glint in his eye that transfixes the audience - his Bateman is a character you admire but are horrified by in equal measure.

Smith also has great chemistry with the rest of the talented cast - in particular Jonathan Bailey (as best friend Tim Price) and Cassandra Compton (Bateman's secretary Jean, here the voice of innocence).  Ensemble numbers are long elegant catwalk shows filled with eccentric characters whose movement is brilliantly, robotically choreographed.  The slick dialogue, meanwhile, is often lifted straight from the source text, jarringly shifting from brutal killings to black comedy, each scene brimming with clever directorial touches from Goold too numerous to mention.

The end result is a stylish, sexy and deliciously disturbing piece of theatre that's amongst the most exciting London has to offer and certainly deserves a West End transfer (though watching it in the intimate Almeida Theatre is a real privilege).  No other musical since Sweeney Todd has revelled in psychotic, villainous behaviour quite like this.


Watch: American Psycho runs until February 1st at the Almeida Theatre.