Staging a play about a man who murders dozens of women is a bold choice in this post-MeToo world. Making it a musical is even bolder. Considering also growing unrest about the fetishisation of dead women in true crime podcasts, and the number of women who are actually murdered every year in real life, it was with trepidation that this reviewer fronted up to see American Psycho the Musical at Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney this week.
Thankfully, this show is a pure joy from curtains up to chainsaws down. Or maybe 95% joy. The other 5% is best described as visceral unease.
Lauded author and born again millennial-baiter Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho was first published in 1991, followed by a critically acclaimed film adaptation starring Christian Bale in 2000. The musical – adapted by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Glee, Riverdale), with songs from the Grammy-winning Duncan Sheik – premiered in 2013 at London’s Almeida theatre, before moving to Broadway. The Hayes production is directed by Alexander Berlage, fresh from winning the 2018 Sydney Theatre award forhis remarkable direction work on Cry-Baby.
A powerful, biting satire about greed, capitalism and greedy capitalism, American Psycho is the story of Patrick Bateman, a genetically blessed 20-something investment banker in 1980s Manhattan. Obsessed with Donald Trump, he is the quintessential man who has everything – oodles of cash, a beautiful girlfriend, devoted lackeys – and yet is satisfied by nothing.
As his 27th birthday looms, Patrick is hit with what he labels an existential crisis, and what psychiatrists might call dissociation. Unable to feel emotions, he begins to fantasise about murdering people. Friends, lovers and strangers, men as well as women; his bloodlust is indiscriminate.
Eventually, the homicidal urge becomes so strong he acts, killing a homeless man and feeling alive again. In taking people’s lives, Patrick finds purpose and fulfilment in his own. He embarks on a gruesome killing spree, while keeping up appearances as a status-hungry finance bro and more socially acceptable terrible person. “I’m into, oh, murders and executions, mostly,” he says. Patrick Bateman is Gordon Gecko with an axe.
American Psycho the Musical has solid bones: the writers have mined the novel to create a showbook so clever, funny and sickeningly upbeat that at times you forget you’re watching a bloodbath. Here, without question, Berlage has matched it with his stagecraft, creating a slick, sexy, highly disturbing show that will have you snort laughing into your chardonnay before coward-punching you in the gut.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the most impressive things about American Psycho the Musical are its moments of gravitas amid the farce. One minute you’re enjoying a high-energy song and dance romp about sex and materialism, the next you’re having a panic attack hoping Patrick doesn’t kill his secretary.
In every play, there’s a weak link: a sub-par actor, a tone-deaf singer, an overly ambitious set. Yet it’s near-impossible to find fault here.
The psychopathic Patrick is played perfectly by Ben Gerrard who, like Bale, is disturbingly convincing. Gerrard’s focus and energy never waver despite being onstage in every scene for a total of over two hours. He is a master manipulator and comic genius, holding the audience in the palm of his red right hand for the show’s duration.
The always delightful Shannon Dooley plays Bateman’s girlfriend, Evelyn Richards, in a performance so over the top it should grate but doesn’t. Her knack for physical comedy is elevated to new levels and it would be possible to watch her facial expressions alone for hours at a time.
Special mention goes to Blake Appelqvist as blissfully oblivious colleague Paul Owen and then as a blissfully oblivious detective investigating the murder of Paul Owen. And also to Erin Clare as Bateman’s ongoing fling, Courtney Lawrence, who steals many scenes with what we’ll call her sensual vapidity. But the entire cast is impressive and, honouring the original book’s framing of all characters as “hard-bodies”, possibly the fittest ensemble ever to grace a Sydney stage.
On the production side, Berlage is reunited with award-winning set designer Isabel Hudson, who has delivered a set as clever as it is versatile. Built atop a revolving stage, it contributes aggressively to the audience’s nauseous discomfort during murder scenes.
Choreographer Yvette Lee has tasked the cast with an impressively frenetic yet often poignant vision: every aspect of this show – actors, set, costume, sound – work in harmony, choreographed down to the millisecond, not simply the dance numbers. This is a gruelling, corporeal show that asks a lot of its players and they deliver with aplomb.
Finally, all respect to another of Berlage’s Cry-Baby alums, costume designer Mason Browne. From 80s Hamptons-appropriate swimwear to McQueen-inspired nightclub attire and blood-spattered raincoats, Browne presents a group of characters more camp than the Met Gala and twice as fun. Shout out to his flesh-coloured human dummies.