So can he sing? Well, yes he can. He’s also pretty buff – making his first appearance last night in a pair of tight white pants and a mask (he’s first seen lying on a sunbed). So he needn’t be embarrassed and more than looks the part of psychotic killer Patrick Bateman in the world premiere of American Psycho.
Yes, Matt Smith – who bows out as Doctor Who this Christmas on BBC1 – dazzled north London last night in his first musical role.
Smith (not that Whovians need reminding) has swapped his Sonic Screwdriver for an altogether nastier set of tools – an axe, nail gun and chainsaw as the murderous Yuppie. It also seems like a canny career move, an emphatic clean cut (in every sense) from the jolly eccentric Time Lord to someone who engages in a murderous spree around New York.
Bateman is a brilliant study in psychosis – a man rich and successful on the outside, yet struggling with “the screaming inside”.
But of course the story’s creator Bret Easton Ellis was writing a supreme, deathly sharp satire. And Rupert Goold’s slick and stylish musical production enhances this aspect with songs like You Are What You Wear hammering the point home that Bateman is the product of a selfish consumerist culture that is all about surface.
That said, the scene made famous in the 2000 Christian Bale film version, when Bateman dances to Huey Lewis and the News’ Hip to be Square before plunging an axe into his rival banker Paul Owen, is still hilarious. But that’s probably because the odd thing about this whole experience is that it is almost as if you detest Bateman as much for his shallowness and magpie-like borrowing of critical conformity on bland music as for his serial killing bloodlust (not that there isn't plenty for 1980s pop nostalgics to enjoy in hits from bands like Tears for Fears, Genesis and New Order, of course).
Indeed, the assault on banality may offer an excuse to forgive some occasionally clunky sounding lyrics, in an otherwise satisfying whole from composer and lyricist Duncan Sheik. A song in which the girlfriends sing “there’s nothing ironic/About out love for Manolo Blahnik” raises a titter. But laughter of the wrong sort could be heard when Smith muses whether “this story/is overwrought and gory”. But such is often the way with musicals. It can be a fine line to tread.
And the important thing is that Smith pulls off most of the vocal work with panache. He is not called upon much in the first act but in numbers like the melodic Clean Reprise and This is Not an Exit he proves he possesses an affecting (though not overly powerful) voice.
What this role demands is for Bateman to be a palette upon which the audience projects their sense of his world. And Smith is up to it. As he says of himself “I simply am not there” and there is a powerful sense pervading this story that he is such an arch fantasist he doesn’t really exist. He could even be making his killings up, even if he sports throughout the play a small fleck of blood on his otherwise immaculately-ironed designer white business shirt. On the whole it feels less violent than the book (certainly) and also the film and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
But the point of course is satirical. Bateman is also surrounded by such a shallow narcissistic milieu that they don’t even pay attention when he confesses to being a killer – “you’re so funny Patrick” says his appallingly shallow girlfriend Evelyn (an excellent Susannah Fielding) when he owns up. And he is. But perhaps not in the way she suspects. I also enjoyed the dinner party scene in which he and his Yuppie friends spout platitudes about the world outside, singing a song called Oh Sri Lanka while also obsessing about their looks and getting the right dinner reservations.
A scene in which Bateman humps Evelyn's best friend Courtney – and also a large pink teddy bear into the bargain – achieves what this production always seems to be striving for: hilarity with a sharp, grotesque satirical edge (though sensitive Doctor Who fans may want to avert their gazes at this particular point).
The staging is impressive too – plenty of dance set pieces have a real oomph and dazzle and revolves are used skillfully to suggest a busy New York Street one minute or a noisy nightclub the next. It is a thrilling ride – but also one that makes you reflect. I have little doubt that this will be a hit, transfer to the West End and then almost certainly enjoy a Broadway run. And Who would begrudge it that?
The production, from the Almeida, Headlong and Act 4 Entertainment, runs Until 1 February
Box Office: 020 7359 4404