December 13, 2013 4:13 pm

American Psycho, Almeida Theatre, London – review

This musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel is bloody but vacuous
Simon Gregor and Matt Smith in ‘American Psycho’©Elliott Franks

Simon Gregor and Matt Smith in ‘American Psycho’

Bret Easton Ellis’s novel was a succès de scandale on its publication in 1991. Its tale of Patrick Bateman, Wall Street trader and conspicuous consumer of all the finest brands by day and crazed serial killer by night (or is he?), was not immediately recognised as satire, particularly in respect of its perceived machismo and misogyny. Two decades on, though, all its excesses are now mere cultural background noise: torture-porn movies are mainstream; food-porn, property-porn and shopping-porn fill TV schedules; trading-porn (like porn-porn) has moved online, along with casual sexist bullying. It all amounts to the cultural equivalent of “too big to fail”: these things are seemingly too deeply embedded in contemporary culture for a satirical indictment of them to draw blood.

Especially when so little blood is on show. The violence of the novel needs to be reduced and stylised, reducing the tension between the strands of consumption and destruction. Nor can Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s script finesse the crucial ambiguity as to whether or not the murders are all in Bateman’s mind; here, there is scarcely a moment’s doubt that he is simply a raving fantasist, so that on this front too there is nothing to indict.


IN Theatre & Dance

What is left to lift the piece out of the ordinary? Well, did I mention that it’s a musical? Duncan Sheik augments his own 15 numbers with half a dozen 1980s standards (kicking off cheekily with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”). The score is serviceable period pastiche, as are the arrangements, all blaring synths and tickety-tacking drum machines, but the lyrics are bland and pedestrian, one more respect in which the required sharpness is crucially absent. Matt Smith’s singing voice is diffident, too, and he deliberately keeps his characterisation of Bateman as blank as possible except when necessary to show some genuine response; but absence is not where Smith’s strength lies, he is a much more impressive performer when he is there.

Rupert Goold’s first production as artistic director of the Almeida is very Rupert Goold: natty visuals and stylish performances, the approach that worked so well with Enron and Chimerica, but here has no core to breathe life into the package. Commercially the production is critic-proof in any case: with a retiring Doctor Who taking the main role mere weeks after that series’ 50th anniversary, they could really do with a Tardis venue which is bigger on the inside. But in the absence of so much that made the work edgy in the first place, nothing remains other than a bloody but vacuous stream of yuppie Walter Mittying. The most bleakly comic aspect of the whole affair may be the amount of corporate involvement trumpeted in the programme.

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