In a year which saw the term ‘selfie’ dubbed the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year, a sleek and shiny new musical about an egotistical, materialistic psycho couldn’t be more fitting or timely. The show opens with antihero Patrick Bateman (played by the powerful and yet terrifyingly blank Matt Smith) rising from the stage in his sunbed, wearing only an eye-mask and his tighty-whiteys, while describing his daily beauty regime: the superficial, self-obsessed world of American Psycho: A New Musical Thriller feels thoroughly recognisable – if not identical to our own – despite the piece being set in Manhattan in the late eighties.
Indeed, the clever thing about director Rupert Goold’s production is that it casts Bateman as a kind of everyman (albeit an everyman with a voracious appetite for blood) who is almost understandably murderous and masochistic in reaction to the toxic city he lives in, the capitalist ideals he is slave to, and the unbearable company he keeps. Thankfully, American Psycho: A New Musical Thriller never veers towards sentimentality, though somehow – largely due to Smith’s magnetic performance – you do find yourself sympathising with this young man, who feels his only means of exerting any control over this chaos is by maiming and destroying others. Indeed, the rendering of this popular novel into the musical form gives this notorious figure an intriguing edge: while songs such as ‘Clean’ and ‘This is Not an Exit’ capture Bateman’s feelings of emptiness and self-loathing, scenes such as Goold’s impressively orchestrated sex-montage highlight Bateman’s own complicity in the very rampant hedonism that leaves him feeling so hollow.
The intensity of Bateman’s world is perfectly captured in Es Devlin’s sublime set, which capitalises on its initial appearance of cold, white sterility to serve as a backdrop for colourful and complex projections, pounding synth music and Katrina Lindsay’s bold costume design. The boundlessly enthusiastic, painfully good-looking and talented cast only add to this rich cocktail of nauseating decadence; perfectly underpinning how, in Bateman’s world (just as in our own), style has completely superseded substance, and money doesn’t talk – it shouts. Numbers such as ‘You Are What You Wear’, which sings the praises of the most expensive designer labels, are not only biting for satirising the excesses of American capitalist culture, but poke fun at the very audiences whom they know will laugh at Bateman’s world without recognising it as their own. Ironically, it is we who are known as the narcissistic generation, completely obsessed with the image we present in public (or on Instagram) just as Bateman himself so tirelessly strives to maintain his cool, controlled façade.
The strange irony about American Psycho: A New Musical Thriller – contradictory though it may sound – is that, despite the sheer spectacle of it, the show nonetheless feels somewhat unfulfilling by the end. At times it does feel long thanks to some songs failing to advance the plot; a few scenes, such as one where Bateman’s secretary, Jean, and his mother discuss his childhood, merely act as demonstrative moments of pop-psychology. It is almost as if all the pomp – the expense poured into it, the revolving set, and the constant costume changes – can only thinly veil what feels like a lack of urgency and heart from the production as a whole. Maybe it’s the hype of Matt Smith, with all his Doctor Who fame, or even the possibility that this is what the director intends in order to underscore his point about style versus substance: still, I came away wondering if this big budget, high-profile show in fact emulates the very ideals it seeks to undermine.
American Psycho: A New Musical Thriller is playing the Almeida Theatre until 1 February. For more information and tickets, see the Almeida Theatre website.