Theatre review: American Psycho at the Almeida

and Hugh Skinner as Luis Carruthers in American Psycho at the Almeida

and Hugh Skinner as Luis Carruthers in American Psycho at the Almeida - Credit: Archant

When Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho was first published in 1991, critics savaged the book with many failing to recognize it as satire. Not surprisingly, Rupert Goold, a director known for his high-concept productions, gives us an interpretation with no ambiguity.

Heightened theatricality and fierce comedy are quickly unleashed when an opening chorus of 1980s New York yuppies in platinum wigs warn, ‘flash your smile/ bare your teeth/ they’ll never guess what’s underneath.’

Adapted by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the novel’s origins are strongly present in this ‘musical-thriller.’ Psycho Patrick Bateman [Doctor’s Who’s Matt Smith – very smart casting] narrates his descent from sadistic fantasies and sporadic murders, to deranged serial killer. We accompany him through his endless round of glitzy nights out with his vapid fiancé [Susannah Fielding is particularly chilling], mistress and colleagues. Commodities abound: business cards drawn like daggers, designer clothes, drugs, products to buff their ‘hardbodies.’ Duncan Sheik [the composer behind Spring Awakening] combines real tracks referenced from Bateman’s taste in 1980s pop [Huey Lewis & the News, Genesis] alongside original numbers that do well in externalizing the characters’ metaphysical crises. Sheik’s tunes are not memorable but the mix of sharp lyrics and spectacle rarely flags.

The collision between deranged fantasy and absurd reality lends itself better to stage than screen [Mary Harron’s film version struggled to adapt the novel’s stream-of-consciousness form] and this slick production is unashamedly seductive. Two mini revolves and a pulsating design by Es Devlin further highlight Bateman’s metaphysical meltdown. The cast perform the choreography with impressive attack as 80s disco moves become expressions of their self-devouring hatred and animalistic urges. Is this all Bateman’s nightmare vision? We roll with his mindset and are equally uncertain.

While the novel’s pornographic scenes are toned down and the violence is carefully stylized, for some the production may be too cool, too ironic given the subject matter. But Smith brings a humanity and rawness to Bateman that brings the themes and 80s pastiche into the present with electrifying force. This is no Bateman as allegory or cautionary-tale villain; this is Bateman as an avatar of capitalist consumption, the product of a greed-is-good era, made horribly, achingly relevant.

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