Thursday, December 19, 2013

'American Psycho: A New Musical Thriller' at the Almeida Theatre, 18th December 2013

American Psycho is a chaotic ocean of brand names, cocaine, pop, dissection, high finance and rape.  As a window into the mind of a monster Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 novel is practically peerless, giving unflinching voice to the fucked up halfthoughts that gestate in best-ignored cobwebbed mental corners.  Patrick Bateman has come to be understood as the physical manifestation of the 1980s; what happens when you take voracious and self-celebratory capitalism to its logical conclusion.

And now this monster is singing and dancing across the London stage wearing the face of one of the most loveable men on British television.  There's an understandable worry that turning American Psycho into a musical is simply a gimmick, staged because they could, rather than because they should.  This fear is dispelled from the first bar: the musical preoccupations, shallow surface style and focus on high fashion within the material making it perfect fit for what musicals do best. This interpretation, directed by Rupert Goold with lyrics written by Duncan Sheik, takes some visual inspiration from Mary Harron's 2000 film, but though both book, film and musical cover roughly the same ground they all come to different conclusions as to the true nature of Patrick Bateman, and by extension, the society that spawned him.

Patrick Bateman is a fascinating creature; sure he's a repulsive monster on every possible level but someone who reacts to 1980s yuppiedom with unhinged homicidal rage is acting out some rather universal revenge fantasies.  As he raises the axe over a sedated co-workers head we tense in pleasure as we eagerly anticipate the a fleshy *thunk*; as he skullfucks the corpse of a prostitute we giggle with grand-guignol pleasure; as he pulls out a chainsaw and starts menacingly revving it, we eagerly look forward to see it slice through some vacuous yuppie or airhead material girl.

It's not that we're psychotic sadists but if we're not out for some blood, why are we watching American Psycho in the first place?  The depravities in the book are probably only possible in print; the visions acted out in the reader's head far beyond anything a film-maker would dare to put on screen.  In response to this "unfilmable book" Harron's movie stylised and toned down the gore, still rejoicing in the thrill of blood splattering against moisturised skin yet behaving with detached restraint. On stage liquid red stuff is almost entirely absent, replaced with stage-wide splashes of crimson light, the convulsions of dissected bodies translated into dance.

The high stylisation makes feel it okay to laugh, and so American Psycho the musical becomes a dark, bloody comedy in the vein of Sweeney Todd or Repo: The Genetic Opera. The construction of the songs underline this, mining a rich seam of humour with kung-fu quick forced rhymes causing ripples of laughter to spread through the theatre at the audacity of rhyming, for example, "Willy Loman" with "Times New Roman".  This consciously clever wordplay works wonders tonally, maintaining an arch, somewhat ironic perspective on this extremely screwed up world.

Horrible it may be, but it's still a beautifully realised world.  Decked out in ultra-slick 80s white, black and chrome minimalism highlighted with bright red blood, Bateman's apartment perfectly reflects him.  It's a neatly modular setup that takes inspiration from Smeg furniture, scenery revolves smoothly, slats lift to reveal background characters and objects rise out of the floor.  The white walls allow the projection of hallucinogenic city-scapes, ghastly rippling wallpaper and overbearingly bright colours.  Often we're drowned in giant oceans of overpowering primary colour - the effect echoing the iconic look of Michael Mann's 80s output.

At the centre of this lyrical and technical virtuosity is Matt Smith's utterly magnetic Patrick Bateman.  He's a markedly different beast from Christian Bale's interpretation, the differences arising primarily because of difference in format.  There's a neat paradox at the heart of adapting American Psycho into a musical that this production both understands and exploits. When a character sings on stage they expressing their inner emotions and unvarnished feelings through song - even if a character is duplicitous and underhanded it's rare to have them sing in a way that misleads the audience.  So how can Patrick Bateman, a character who is "simply not there" sing a song about his feelings?

The solution is to make this Patrick Bateman surprisingly sympathetic and the 1980s the real monster.  Matt Smith's Patrick Bateman is a remarkably fragile creature: desperately trying to maintain the illusion of self-confidence, feverishly denying his latent homosexuality, scrabbling for something, anything that he can feel something about.  He's a man scrabbling for an identity of his own and being denied any chance to express himself.  He's trying his best to be GQ-man par excellence - loudly extolling the pleasures of conformity but when surrounded by his identikit 'friends' or mistaken for someone else he's obviously uncomfortable.  It's not conformity Bateman is after: after all in the famous business card scene he doesn't want to fit in, he wants to stand out.

This search for an identity to set him apart from the rabble results in his crimes, frantically rummaging through the entrails of his victims to try and take something of them into himself.  He lists off his serial killer heroes like most people name their favourite writers, desperate to join this pantheon of evil.  The true horror in this American Psycho is when, after committing the worst atrocities he can imagine, Patrick Bateman realises that he now conforms better than before.  Nobody gives a crap about his crimes and nobody gives a toss about his psychosis. This is the tragedy of Matt Smith's Bateman: though he denies it there is something human within that murderous carapace, it's society that sees nothing there.

With this, and the murders reduced to abstractions, this perversely makes Patrick Bateman the victim. We hear his mother wistfully recall the young Bateman singing and dancing, describing a child without a hint of menace.  Bateman isn't a born monster, he's a made one - innocence corrupted by an overbearing culture of avarice, materialism and greed.  His final punishment is to be sucked further into the quicksand, ending up as a trophy husband in a loveless marriage - Smith's face morose with despair as he numbly intones:
“Maybe you've been slaughtered / Maybe you've been kissed / Either way means nothing / I simply don't exist.”
In other adaptations his claim to not exist can be read as a kind of triumph, the character believing himself a Randian ubermensch who's conquered human emotions.  Here it's a suicide note: the epitaph of a man resigned to a future devoid of joy.  That said, he probably deserves it.

This is a remarkable dissection of the story, the musical format shedding fascinating new light on the character and more than distinguishing itself from both the source material and the 2000 film.  There's a few rough edges to sand off, the low point of the show is Hugh Skinner's Luis - an overly broad John Inman-style gay stereotype.  Yet on the whole this is a bloody triumph, the electro-pop tunes lyrically dazzling, the staging complimenting the 80s aesthetics and the performances hilarious, exaggerated and still somehow touching - the obvious highlight Matt Smith's brilliant Patrick Bateman.

If you go and hang around the Almeida Theatre around showtime I've got a suspicion that there's a more than decent chance you'd score an unclaimed seat.  It's absolutely worth risking a wasted trip.

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