By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
Men and women in black and beige trench coats stand in the aisles of the audience singing “we are faceless, perfect faces . . . we are faceless, we are so clean”. Shrieking synths and drum-machine beats: a pastiche of 1980s pop music seamlessly turns into Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” as Patrick Bateman, played by Matt Smith, ascends through a trapdoor wearing tight white Ralph Lauren underpants and a face-pack, all metrosexual and intoxicatingly kitsch.
“This is what Patrick Bateman means to me”, he repeats, along with a list of his toiletries and clothes. He then whips his blazer jacket from its hook on the wall to reveal “last but not least . . . my Walkman. It’s Sony”. We all laugh.
It came as no surprise, last night at the Almeida Theatre, that this new musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho worked so well. The story of Patrick Bateman – Wall Street trader, insatiable consumerist, debatable serial killer – couldn’t be more suited to a musical, with its episodes of excess and knowing self-reference. (cf. Martin Scorsese's most recent film, The Wolf of Wall Street.)
The outrage began, of course, before the book was even published, in 1991: the initial publishers, Simon and Schuster, dropped American Psycho (despite paying a $300,000 advance) on the grounds of taste after leaked information about its content – murder, rape, mutilation, torture, misogyny – caused public outcry. James Bowman, in his TLS review, did a hatchet job of his own:
“This is a book about noticing and not noticing things which has managed to get itself noticed . . . . [Ellis] has succeeded, it is true, in the seemingly impossible task of making his book as boring as it is repulsive. But in the end it boils down to the story of a spoiled and vicious child whose complaint that he isn’t noticed enough cannot plausibly be laid to the responsibility of capitalism, Ronald Reagan, the destruction of the environment or even our contemporary ‘moral universe’ . . . but only to that of his sly creator – who now, at least, should be able to get a table at Dorsia”.
Some of the musical’s lyrics are banal (“too much of the things that cost too much”) – but isn’t that the point? It’s the deliberately monotonous libretto of a depraved, unemotional, superficial society. Smith’s deadpan delivery of lines, both spoken and sung, characterize Bateman as blank and hollow: the rhythm and tone of his voice don’t change when he says to a video-shop girl “have a nice day. Have an awesome day”, rendering the words meaningless.
Business cards are the appropriately trivial subject of one of the best songs and scenes in the musical. Bateman and his rival Paul Owen (played by Ben Aldridge) battle in a bar over aesthetics – the thickness of paper, font choice – each trying to prove that his business card is better than the other’s. (It's also iconic in Ellis's novel and in the film by Mary Harron.) Owen naffly dances on a table with exaggerated arms in the air, while Bateman circles him, stalking his prey: "Oh baby, baby, you’re such a card, / making it look so easy, / when you know it’s fucking hard”. "Yours is Times New Roman", Owen scoffs. "I’m no Willy Loman", Bateman replies.
The score mixes new arrangements with 80s "classics", such as Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight”, Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Huey Lewis and News’ “Hip to Be Square”, while the slick choreography, visuals and set design recall the era's music videos: hallucinogenic, neon, brash, cubic. One projection looks like Tetris rectangles; in another scene, Bateman has sex with the married Courtney and an almost life-sized pastel pink teddy bear while the rest of the cast act out an aerobics class (with sweatbands, leg-warmers, leotard); in a restaurant, Bateman and his equally odious friends take turns to broadcast their orders to the waitress using a hand-held microphone; and throughout, black plastic strip curtains, like butchers', hang ominously at the side exits of the stage. Such touches are typical of the director Rupert Goold's approach.
The second half brings more of the same, and perhaps the music is less effective because of that. Emphasizing the dark comedy of the novel means that Bateman’s violence and murders are hardly considered as anything other than fantasies, which doesn’t completely do justice to the ambiguity in the book – the terrifying idea that it could all be real. And that we don't know it.
All the same, a transfer to the West End is a safe bet; it really is brilliantly entertaining, and should make – sorry – a killing . . . .