Two Doctors play very distinct villains

December 20, 2013, 01:00am
Matt Smith plays the anti-hero in Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal novel
Matt Smith plays the anti-hero in Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal novel

THEATRE
AMERICAN PSYCHO

Almeida Theatre | By Steve Dinneen
Five Stars

MATT Smith looks nothing like how I imagine Patrick Bateman, the axe-wielding investment banker at the heart of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho. In fact, he doesn’t really look like any other human being apart, perhaps, from the guy who posed for the Easter Island statues.

After two minutes on stage, though – in which he shows off his carefully manicured physique wearing nothing but a pair of gleaming white briefs – you don’t have any trouble believing in him.

Whether he’s discussing if you can team tasseled loafers with a business suit (yes, obviously), or murdering prostitutes with a nail gun, he brings a joyous, detached nihilism to one of the most singularly joyless literary characters.

In tone the production veers closer to Mary Harron’s film version (2000) than the novel, steering clear of the more gruesome passages (probably wisely; nobody wants to see a musical version of how Bateman utilises a sewer rat).

The slick script also manages to capture most of Easton Ellis’s more acerbic lines – during one investment banker’s breakdown in a nightclub he screams about needing to escape from his life, to which his colleague replies: “Where to, Morgan Stanley?”

The novel offers rich material for theatrical adaptations – sharp dialogue, distinctive period visuals, blood-soaked set pieces – but putting it to a jaunty soundtrack is no mean feat. Director Rupert Goold nails it. It’s a brilliant melding of late 80s anthems – including Duran Duran, The Human League and New Order – and original, synth-pop inspired tunes. And, for the most part, it avoids the drama school-style vibrato singing that puts many people off musical theatre (exaggerated American accents help, although Jonathan Bailey has an irritating habit of lapsing into RP during his musical interludes).

Smith’s voice isn’t the most elegant, but neither were those of most of the 80s pop stars he’s borrowing from. The lyrics, meanwhile, are ingenious pastiches of 80s consumerism and are coupled with striking choreography. One brilliantly executed scene sees members of the New York investment banking fraternity glide expressionlessly across the stage while Bateman slices through them with a kitchen knife; another introduces a chorus-line of dancing girls with Barney’s bags for heads.

The balance between horror, madness and surreal humour is spot-on, and clever use of projection to represent Bateman’s increasingly fraught state of mind add texture to the production.

Fans of the novel will appreciate how it stays true to the source material, while musical aficionados will enjoy the effortless lyricism of the set pieces.

And if you can’t bag tickets at the Almeida, don’t worry too much: this is a dead cert for a transfer to the West End.

FILM
ANCHORMAN 2

Cert 12A | By Melissa York
Two Stars

I DON’T know how to put this but Anchorman is kind of a big deal. It came out to little fanfare nearly a decade ago but the legend of Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell’s moustachioed newsman, has grown exponentially. If Anchorman were a person, he would now own many leather-bound books and his apartment would smell of rich mahogany.

Alas at some point over the last decade it seems to have lost its sense of humour. Put it down to performance anxiety or an over-abundance of competitive improvisation, but its tasteless quest to break social boundaries falls flat. Where Anchorman brilliantly sends up sexist attitudes in the 70s, its sequel attempts to do the same with race in the 80s. However, Burgundy’s bravado fails to carry him through the frequent uncomfortably unfunny moments. A case in point: Burgundy pointing at his new employer’s face and screaming “black!” repeatedly, or attempting to “talk black” during a dinner with a family of African Americans. It tries hard to be post-offensive but ends up being post-humour.

The surrealism of Steve Carrell’s Brick character also loses any subtlety and he’s reduced to stammering nonsense for minutes on end. Similarly, the celebrity-packed finale is miles beneath everyone involved.

It’s a shame because the satirical slant at the core of Anchorman 2 – the tabloidisation of 24-hour news – is actually a good concept and the Australian media owner is well-written. If only they’d come up with some jokes.

THEATRE
RICHARD II

Barbican | By Steve Dinneen
Three Stars

THE Barbican’s production of Richard II is the stuff of pure spectacle – big performances, big costumes and big hair. In pride of place as the doomed King is David Tennant, probably the most bankable Shakespearian actor of his generation. His Richard is an extravagantly maned, wonderfully flamboyant anti-hero. Tennant comes across as a likeable chap, and this seeps into his interpretation of the King. Even when he’s taking the country to war or callously raiding the coffers of a dying friend, there’s a serendipity to him – being the King looks like a rather spiffing lark.

Tennant’s greatest achievement is marrying Richard’s simultaneous acceptance and denial of his fate. A scene in which there is a literal and metaphorical tug of war over the crown is a highlight of the play. After he capitulates to Bolingbroke, even his flowing locks seem to lose their lustre.

Tennant is deftly supported, not least by Nigel Lyndsay (last seen taking the Radio Norwich team hostage in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) as the power-hungry Bolingbroke.

A slight sag towards the end of the first half aside, it’s an enjoyable romp, but I can’t help feeling that the pretty clothes and intricate set mask a slight lack of substance. It’s good fun, but it’s not the definitive telling of this dark tragedy that its blockbuster cast allow you to hope for.

THEATRE
EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES

The Olivier Theatre | By Jenny Forsyth
Four Stars

EMIL And The Detectives may have been written 84 years ago, but the National Theatre’s production proves that good storytelling never goes out of style.

The play, adapted from Carl Miller’s novel, is a crowd-pleaser for both young and old. Set in 1929, it tells the story of Emil, whose single working mother has reluctantly allowed him to leave “the sticks” of Neustadt to visit relatives in Berlin. On the train he is robbed of the 140 marks his mother tirelessly saved for his grandmother.

Plucky Emil follows the wicked, bowler-hatted Mr Snow and is gradually joined by an ever-growing band of streetwise child helpers. Some of the child actors – especially Daniel Patten as Emil – are brilliantly professional: no small feat on the large Olivier stage.

But it’s Bunny Christie’s dark and ambitious set design that steals the show. There are black and white projections of skyscrapers and newspapers, moving shadows from the streetlights that glide around the stage and amazing effects that trick the audience into believing Emil has moved down a level into the dank and eerily lit sewers.

With fast-paced action and a much-loved story, it’s a great choice for a family outing. 

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