Alison Dodd's Blog

Review: American Psycho (The Almeida)

Posted on: Thursday 2 January 2014

Book: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark; Glee)

Music and Lyrics: Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening)

Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis

Director: Rupert Goold (Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre; Enron)

 

Obligatory disclaimer: I have neither read the book nor seen the film so I have no point of reference for this piece.  I debated reading the novel before seeing the musical, but I never got around to it – plus I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to have the source material so fresh in the mind.

I booked this before the casting was announced on the basis that a show about a psychopath might appeal to my husband, who doesn’t really enjoy musicals.  He raised an eyebrow when I told him that Matt Smith (Doctor Who) had been cast as Patrick Bateman and then sat back smugly whilst the Twitter-verse worked itself into a frenzy over their inability to get tickets.

The good

Cassandra Compton (the secretary ‘Jean’) has a really lovely voice; indeed the best one in the cast.  She has a really touching song mid-way through the second act and her portrayal of her character’s growth was really subtly but expertly executed.  Oh, and she also gets to snog Matt Smith so nice day at the office for her.

Brava for the dressers – there were a lots of costume and wig changes (Matt Smith probably got through 10 shirts alone) and everything looked really good.  Honourable mention also for the stage hands who manoeuvred lots of furniture onto and off of the two revolves and never once had anything catch on the walls of the set as it went round.

The bad

Where to start?  It seemed overly long – I was willing the interval to arrive when Act 1 entered a big lull and I think I counted almost every minute of the 1 hour Act 2.  In fact, I kept looking over at the guy sitting next to me to see if I could see the time on his watch.  Really not a good sign!  I was borderline ready to leave at the interval.

In addition to rambling at times, the book seemed to skimp on detail.  For example, I don’t understand what drove Bateman to his first kill when he’d been able to fight the urge for so long.  It just seemed opportune and then he never attempted to keep it in check, even for concern over getting caught.

The music and lyrics were sometimes good and sometimes not.  It opened strongly, there were a few good ensemble numbers and a lovely solo in Act 2 but overall just never quite grabbed me.  I even felt sorry for the cast at one point as they sung about type fonts and paper stock for their business cards – probably not going to be a highlight on anyone’s resume.  Also included are a number of 80s hits – presumably to give context but it smacked of giving the audience something to latch onto since the original music wasn’t doing it.

There is some very strange direction with actors using a hand held microphone periodically, and then handing it to each other in order to deliver their lines.  The first few times it happened I was puzzled but thought all would be explained later.  It wasn’t.  Either that or it went over my head.

I also question some of the set design/prop decisions.  In the opening scene reference was made to a television at the side of the stage and the latest features of Bateman’s Walkman – so we’re clearly in the 80s.  Only problem was the TV was a 32” flat-screen LCD; I don’t recall them being around back then.  In another scene a member of the ensemble was seen in the background taking photos with a disposable camera.  I thought they were a 90s thing.  These inconsistencies, along with some very non-80s looking costumes (particularly the wedding dress), irritated me since they wouldn’t have been hard, or expensive, to get right.

But what about Doctor Who Matt Smith?

This is what everyone will be asking me, I’m sure.  Let’s just say that he isn’t, and doesn’t claim to be, a singer.  He fully commits to it and is adequate; he hit a few bum notes here and there but didn’t let it phase him and he didn’t seem overawed when singing duets or with the ensemble.

He has to dance in a few scenes and this was the weakest part of his performance.  He seemed quite self-conscious and wasn’t really able to keep up the acting and storytelling while he was doing it.  It felt like his performance stopped while he performed the choreography he’d been given; he seemed a little puzzled as to why Bateman would be dancing around with meat cleavers in his hand and how this advanced the story.  For Matt Smith is, first and foremost, an actor.

And his acting was top notch.  He avoided the cliché of portraying Bateman as a malevolent, hand wringing, hissing villain.  Instead he delivered us a character so worn down by his job, relationships and 80s New York that he just didn’t have the energy to pretend to be ‘normal’ anymore.  He never showed us remorse for the killings but equally never revelled in them – Bateman was very matter of fact about what he did.  Yet when he thought he was about to be caught Smith was able to show us the sense of relief Bateman was feeling and his reaction to Jane’s confession of love was the first time we were allowed to see Bateman’s humanity.

So overall it was a credible performance.  His accent wavered here and there, and was virtually non-existent during the songs, but it was a brave decision for him to tackle a musical straight after leaving Doctor Who and a brave decision by the Almeida to cast essentially a non-singer in such a demanding role.  The run was almost sold out before his casting was announced so it wasn’t simply a stunt simply to boost ticket sales although I’m sure the attention they received as a result was not unwelcome.

Final verdict

The show needs more work.  The music and lyrics are not nearly engaging enough and the book ambles along with no sense of urgency.  Even the scenes that were meant to be dramatic climaxes (i.e. the killings) fell flat.  A passable rookie musical theatre performance from Matt Smith but even an experienced singer couldn’t have saved this show for me.  It will probably end up getting a West End transfer, assuming Matt Smith’s availability, since they could easily sell out a limited run.  I’m afraid I can’t recommend it however – spend your money on a ticket to Sweeney Todd instead (much more gory!).

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