In 1991, the literary world was handed a bombshell of a novel by L.A. bad boy Bret Easton Ellis. It would cause immediate wrath from a number of high profile feminists and moralists for its depiction of sex, violence and drugs, yet it was always meant as a satire of the lifestyle that it was depicting. The clue was in the name: American Psycho.
The novel told the first-person narrative of a Wall Street investment banker called Patrick Bateman. By day he would earn obscene money doing minimal work and attending extended liquid lunches with other businessmen, and by night he would eat ridiculous food at exclusive restaurants before going to elitist nightclubs to take copious amounts of cocktails and champagne / spirits. The minutiae of this lavish lifestyle are explained at length in the book, from meticulous detail of characters suits and accessories to recipe-specific details about the expensive food.
The controversy arose when it became apparent that Bateman got tired of this lifestyle and began to torture and kill people in his spare time – outlined in the same explicit and detached detail as the descriptions of food. The book was widely misunderstood at the time, and yet now has become a postmodern literary classic and was transformed into a well-received film starring Christian Bale and directed by Mary Hannon.
The novel was set during the 1980s and Bateman was constantly talking about how much he loved the popular music of the era. So it is fitting to see that the narrative has been transformed into a musical directed by Rupert Gould. The show has its world premiere run at the Almeida Theatre in Islington and to a fan of the novel (and film), I feel that it is a complete success. It is the perfect palimpsest to add enjoyment to the other versions that exist.
The play begins with Matt Smith as Bateman rising from below the stage stood in a tanning bed in his underwear before the singing the introduction song Clean. The show both faithfully recreates moments from the source material as well as creating new scenes and songs to go with them. The infamous scene where the yuppie bankers compare business cards is now turned into a paranoid song and dance number; the moment where Bateman kills his rival Paul Allen with an axe to the sound of Huey Lewis and the News has an extended song to fit with it; a new scene featuring Courtney and Evelyn, Batemans girlfriend and her best friend who he is having an affair with, shows them preparing for a dinner party singing a song that comprises mostly of designer fashion names.
The music, set design and lighting are all perfectly constructed to celebrate the 1980s. The original music is all sparse and electronic (and brilliant) and the score also features references to other classics from the era like True Faith and In The Air Tonight. The lighting is maximal throughout, from complimenting murders with flashes of blood red to interrupting Bateman from his own thoughts by flooding the whole stage with television static – a very ‘80s visual code. The set design morphs between a handful of locations: Batemans minimal apartment, his office, the streets of Manhattan and restaurants and nightclub: all of which achieved through slight adjustments to the set and big sweeping lighting effects.
The big winners onstage are Cassandra Compton and Susannah Fielding. Compton plays Jean, Bateman’s secretary who is secretly in love with him – she has a beautiful voice and is given freedom to often sing solo. Fielding on the other hand plays Evelyn, Bateman’s shallow and oblivious girlfriend – she gets most of the big laugh lines and sings the brilliant early song, You Are What You Wear. The other great comedy performance comes from Jonathan Bailey as Tim Price, a Wall Street money man who freaks out after too much cocaine and runs away.
The show is littered with some great jokes that will only make sense to fans of the book or have an understanding of theatre. For example the flag waving when Bateman goes to see Les Miserables, or the song ‘Mistletoe Alert’ – this is mainly due to the cooperation of Easton Ellis himself throughout the pre-production of the show.
Matt Smith feels like an odd choice for Bateman, and sometimes feels like he doesn’t have a strong enough voice, but as my girlfriend said (and I have to credit her) the cast seems to be comprised of trained actors, singers and dancers with no one cast member proficient at all three. His later scenes with Cassandra Compton are very moving moments, especially during serial-killer musical.
Overall there are only tiny criticisms of such a hugely entertaining evening. The theatre is small and intimate, the set design and choreography are excellent and the music is great. The most amusing joke of all though was the demographic of the crowd – for a controversial book about a psychopathic, sex fuelled drug addict, there were a lot of upper-class, chardonnay-sipping septuagenarians in the audience…
American Psycho: A New Musical Thriller is now playing at the Almeida Theatre