In Australia, the book American Psycho is famous for being sold shrink-wrapped, to shield minors from author Bret Easton Ellis’ visceral depictions of murder and torture. This vibrant musical adaptation dials back the gore, to put welcome emphasis on satire of shallow and sociopathic yuppies.
With book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik, the musical had a brief run on Broadway in 2016, but found success in 2019 in an invigorated production at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre, for which director Alexander Berlage won the Sydney Theatre Award for Best Direction of a Musical. Now on tour after a coronavirus-enforced hiatus, the production has finally reached the Canberra Theatre.
Patrick Bateman (Ben Gerrard) is an image-obsessed, Trump-worshipping investment banker, who vents his frustration by moonlighting as a serial killer.
Bateman is empty, but so is his world. His banker colleagues are amoral and hedonistic, and his gorgeous girlfriend (Shannon Dooley) is obnoxious and mercenary. Here Bateman is not an all-powerful and conniving devil, but an outsider struggling to fit in by swaddling himself in expensive brands and reciting topical stories scavenged from newspapers.
While the novel and the 2000 movie with Christian Bale as Bateman relish torture porn, the musical downplays both the carnage and misogyny of the source material, more interested in mocking the emptiness of consumerism. Thirty years has made the expensive status symbols of Bateman’s era such as the walkman twee, and cultural snobbery such over dated bands like
Huey Lewis and the News ridiculous.
While satire was an intended element of Ellis’ novel, without the distraction of offputting, indulgent violence the sardonic humour swells. Aguirre-Sacasa’s book is witty, for example in multiple jabs at 90s musical darling Les Misérables, and Sheik’s music evokes the era with haunted synth and poetic invocation of the names of half-forgotten brands.
Ben Gerrard’s Bateman is neurotic, brittle and floundering. While Batemen is an adonis with access to extraordinary luxuries and experiences, Gerrard’s savvy performance makes it impossible to envy this isolated, unhappy weirdo. If Christian Bale showed us what Bateman wanted others to see, Gerrard plays him as he sees himself.
The ensemble capture the era and their characters perfectly, in particular Shannon Dooley as Bateman’s aerobics-toned but vapid and self-obsessed trophy girlfriend. Angelique Cassimatis’ performance as Bateman’s sincere and devoted secretary gives the musical its heart, and tantalises Bateman with a glimpse of the meaning in life he will never find.
A fantastic set by Isabel Hudson has a relentless revolve and gigantic mirrors to capture the frantic pace and inescapable narcissism of Bateman’s world.
In the end, the pathetic and lost Bateman is a psychopath of limited ambition. Thirty years on, we know a true American Psycho can aspire to become President.