Every now and again a show comes around that is so over hyped it leaves audiences clamouring for a ticket, unsure exactly of what or why they simply ‘have to see’ such a production. The Almeida Theatre and Headlong’s newest musical American Psycho is a perfect example of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome, where audiences are made to feel so lucky that they actually secured a ticket, they then feel compelled to enjoy it and find themselves swept away unnecessarily.
I must admit I too was swept up in this furore and was so excited to see Duncan Sheik’s musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel that is frequently referred to as a ‘masterpiece’. Having recently experienced the 2000 film starring Christian Bale, I was unsure about how it would transfer to the stage but was excited at the prospect of a modern book musical by one of my favourite producing houses.
The plot follows the daily life of investment banker Patrick Bateman during the Wall Street Boom of the 1980s, as his cocaine fueled lifestyle leads him down a dark path as he becomes a psychotic murderer. Rupert Goold’s staging is, like the character of Bateman himself, efficient, classy and attractive. Es Devlin’s set design enhances the direction in this fully ensemble driven piece which cleverly evokes the 80s yuppie lifestyle that surrounds Bateman and his associates. The production’s main strength is the quality of ensemble actors that bring the show to life, in a highly physical and economical way. Katrina Lindsay’s costume and wig designs allow the small cast of 15 to play a wide range of interesting characters, keeping the pace moving and never feeling too ‘filmic’ and embracing the necessary theatrical conventions and restraints of the new form.
Matt Smith certainly looks the part as Bateman, making his first appearance in tight white boxers in a vertical tanning booth, whilst a the ensemble belt out “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. He manages to command the stage throughout whilst navigating the girlish cheers from Dr Who fans sat on the front row who look like they haven’t seen a comb since their GCSE’s. The piece relies on him to navigate the character’s complexities that leave you on the edge until the final moments. True, he wouldn’t win a singing contest anytime soon, but thankfully for him he was only required to sing a grand total of five notes, so heavily overproduced they were unrecognizable.
Duncan Sheik’s score is what ultimately lets the piece down. An attempt to combine contemporary 80s songs with original music fails spectacularly, leaving the Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’ as the musical highlight of a three hour evening. Whilst the West End is used to jukebox musicals, this hybrid did nothing to advance the genre, and ultimately creates a confusing soundscape that was repellent to listen to. Whilst Spring Awakening showed the composer’s ability to write for the stage, using the genre in a modern way, the score for American Psycho tries so hard to not conform it ends up being offensively bland and unfulfilling. It may be argued that the songs were written specifically for someone who couldn’t necessarily sing, but then so was “Send in the Clowns” and that became a masterpiece. Cassandra Compton as secretary Jean has the only interesting song, and you find yourself overly thankful for giving a clean and tuneful performance.
Lyrically the show continues to undermine itself, with such gems as “and that’s fine, to each his own / but some guy’s ass is not what I bone” landing like a YouTube rapper about to find themselves with a court hearing. The sophisticated production continued to be let down at every turn by such clunky text, you found yourself hoping Bateman would leap out and take off your ears with a meat cleaver to spare you the pain.
I couldn’t help feel a little cheated by the inconclusive ending, and after investing three hours in an (extremely cold) venue, I was hoping the mystery would in some part be solved. Instead this made the whole venture seem like even more of a waste of time, summed up perfectly by the (loud) American lady in front of me, who answered the question “did that really have to be 3 hours?” by yelling “HONEY – THAT DIDN’T NEED TO BE HALF AN HOUR – IT WAS AWFUL”.
In any case, I’m sure it will have every Olivier Award thrown at it along with a West End and Broadway transfer, so this Emperor will probably continue to dance naked for some time to come.