American Psycho review – Matt Smith helps murderous yuppie make a killing

Almeida, London
Matt Smith helps Bret Easton Ellis’s murderous yuppie to make a killing

It sounds improbable: a musical thriller about a serial killer. But Sondheim did it in Sweeney Todd. And, although this version of Bret Easton Ellis's notorious 1991 bestseller, is a very different bucket of blood, it works superbly thanks to Rupert Goold's stylish production, Duncan Sheik's music and lyrics and Matt Smith's beautifully defined performance as the deluded hero.

Credit also belongs to the book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa which captures the satire at the heart of the dark, Dostoyevskian story.

In Easton Ellis's novel the hero, Patrick Bateman, is a 26-year-old Wall Street investment banker who eventually realises that "surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in".

And, in this version, we are constantly reminded that Bateman and his cronies inhabit a consumerist culture in which everything is commodified.

They drink and dine at the "in" places, agonise over whether it's OK to wear tasselled loafers with a business suit and, in the case of Bateman's girlfriend, react to a brutal murder by getting some facials at Elizabeth Arden.

Even if Bateman himself is an unreliable narrator, his apparent killing spree is a reaction against the emptiness of a world in which brand names provide the only real values.

But how to capture this on stage? Goold's production does it with a cool wit that actually enhances the story's satire.

Es Devlin's design is a slatted white box that acquires an hallucinogenic quality as the story unfolds. And the production has any number of swift transitions that underline the mixture of the savage and the sardonic.

The first killing we see is of a street bum who, to Bateman, is as socially superfluous as the old woman in Crime and Punishment.

But the stylised murder instantly gives way to a gym dance in which the young, tanned and beautiful are assiduously working out.

And throughout the production switches between insane violence and the debauched idyll, including a lovely evocation of summer in the Hamptons, occupied by Bateman's yuppie peers.

Sheik's music also evokes Bateman's Eighties pop icons, such as Phil Collins, and provides an ironic commentary on the action. Instead of stand-alone songs Sheik gives us music that reflects the world the characters inhabit.

Thus in You Are What You Wear three smart women, led by Bateman's girlfriend, hymn the virtues of Chanel, Gaultier and Giorgio Armani.

And in this coke-snorting milieu a celebration of Christmas reminds us that "You'll see why Santa loves the snow."

Inevitably the stand-out performer is the excellent Matt Smith who, with his square jaw and clean-cut aspect, perfectly embodies Bateman's preoccupation with appearances.

But he also has the capacity to suggest there is a strange emotional vacancy and spiritual hollowness within this solitary fantasist. Without enlisting our sympathy, he makes Bateman wholly believable.

And he is very well supported by Susannah Fielding as his high-living girlfriend, Cassandra Compton as his quietly adoring secretary, Hugh Skinner as a geeky guy also enthralled by him and Simon Gregor as a cop who embodies what little conscience he has.

Maybe the sleek staging undercuts some of the blackness of the original book. But the compensation lies in the heightening of the satire in a world in which "everyone has a beautiful body" and in which people are identified by fashion, fads and gizmos.

Jointly presented by the Almeida, Headlong and Act 4 Entertainment, this is a show that confirms the mythic power of Easton Ellis's story and leaves us all dangerously entertained.

Until 1 February

Box Office: 020 7359 4404


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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