Matt Smith packs more defined pecs than you might expect of a former Doctor Who. The ripped torso rises out of the Almeida’s stage as smoothly as a cassette ejecting from a high-end, late-20th-century tape deck. Smith is the latest incarnation of Patrick Bateman, who lives in the raging materialism of late-20th-century New York and whose favourite objects include his Sony Walkman and his body.
Resurrected for Rupert Goold’s inaugural production as the Almeida Theatre’s chief, this is the latest incarnation of Bateman, the serial-killer banker at the centre of Bret Easton Ellis’s chilling 1991 novel, and also the movie that followed starring Christian Bale.
Smith’s version gets less scary as the evening goes on, not because the actor doesn’t convince as the pitiless heart of the show. It is just that, unlike Ellis, Goold is more interested in seducing his audience than in disturbing them.
The murders are easy on the eye. Blood red looks good against the gleaming white minimalism of Es Devlin’s set. I don’t buy the point made in the programme by Mary Harron, director of the movie version, that the extreme violence of the book is as unsuited to the stage as it is to film. On stage, you don’t have to be as graphic as on film. There are subtle ways to show, suggest and describe horror, even when the subject concerns the sadistic use of rats. And the most horrifying of the novel’s killings don’t make the final cut in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s book.
Composer and lyric writer Duncan Sheik (who co-wrote the best musical score this century for the show Spring Awakening) doesn’t attempt to rouse with stirring anthems. Rather his music washes over you like one of Bateman’s exfoliating balms.
Smith’s singing voice is the perfect match — an utterly soulless low-fi drawl. Anything more dynamic would have suggested an emotional life in Bateman that just does not exist, Ellis’s point being the man’s emptiness and the vacuity of his needs. It’s a condition defined by the sharpest suits, the most elegant style, the most confident bearing — and promoted by the death sentences he carries out on anyone who makes him feel less than the best.
There is fellow banker Paul Owen (terrifically played by Ben Aldridge with relentless sang-froid), whom Bateman admires even though Owen constantly mistakes him for someone else. So he has to die. And then there’s Bethany, the girlfriend who fatally notices that the modern art in Bateman’s apartment is upside down. She’s got to go, too.
Bateman’s peers are equally shallow, if less psychotic. At a dinner party, some of them prove that they have interests beyond their clique by expressing sorrow for those caught by conflict in Sri Lanka. “It’s appalling what the Sikhs are doing to the Israelis there.”
Has Goold done justice to Ellis? I doubt Ellis would think so. For starters, there is not enough fear generated. But there’s no doubt that this is vintage work by the director. No current show feels more sophisticated and urbane — qualities in which Goold has excelled with shows such as Enron and the 9/11 play, Decade. This one positively drips with irony.
Although none of it is enough to make you care much about the fate of those on stage — a little like Bateman.