Hayes Theatre Co staged its first production in 2014 in the cosy 111-seat Potts Point theatre it calls home. The production was a revelatory production of Sweet Charity, directed by Dean Bryant, that was received with cries of joy and rewarded with a continuing life on tour, including at the Sydney Opera House.

Sweet Charity in many ways set an ideal for the Hayes, which was founded for the express purpose of specialising in musical theatre. Charity showed that a production created for a small space could breathe out, travel and – hope of hopes – create a little more return on investment. It’s not easy to turn a buck in a 111-seater, which is why it’s wonderful to see shows from the Hayes get a life elsewhere in important theatres. (It’s what happens to excellent musicals developed at the 180-seat Menier Chocolate Factory in London.)

Ben Gerrard in American Psycho: The Musical, Sydney Opera House, 2021. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Another Hayes smash hit, Calamity Jane (2017), proved there was a huge amount of life in what might have been thought a rather mangy old dog. It was picked up by Belvoir for its second Sydney season and was devoured by audiences on repeat visits to Arts Centre Melbourne. Now comes the revival of American Psycho: The Musical, first staged at the Hayes in 2019 and currently at the Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse. And next month the SOH’s Drama Theatre hosts a return season of yet another Hayes hit, Cry-Baby (2018), like Calamity Jane a left-field choice and a triumph.

And so to American Psycho, directed – as is Cry-Baby – by the multi-talented Alexander Berlage. He is also a highly regarded lighting designer and currently co-Artistic Director of Red Line Productions, which is based at the Old Fitz Theatre in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. His list of achievements would lead you to believe he has been in the business for many a year, but in fact Berlage graduated from NIDA as recently as 2017. There’s a lot more to come from this quarter.

Berlage has fashioned an exciting and engrossing piece of theatre from a source many – most? – would have thought unpromising for the musical stage. Bret Easton Ellis’s satire on rapacious consumer culture was expressed in a novel that reportedly revelled in violence of the most grotesque kind. I say reportedly, because I couldn’t bring myself to read the book on its publication in 1991, and cannot now, not even in the name of research. Let’s just say that reading about and around it is quite enough. Good to know, though, that Ellis picked up early on the pernicious influence of Donald Trump and his book The Art of the Deal, which is a touchstone for his anti-hero, Patrick Bateman.

American Psycho: The Musical, Sydney Opera House, 2021. Photograph © Daniel Boud

In 2000 Mary Harron wrote and directed a film version of American Psycho, starring Christian Bale as Patrick, and in 2013 a musical adaptation opened in London at the Almeida, another prestigious small theatre that frequently sends work on to larger venues. The musical, by Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (book), made it to Broadway in 2016 where it did not meet with much favour. It lasted less than three months.

Berlage seduces the audience into Patrick’s world and his head from the get-go and makes us complicit. Oh how we laugh, shamelessly egged on by Yvette Lee’s stupendously entertaining choreography and Mason Browne’s living-it-large and getting-down-and-dirty costumes. The music, overseen by Andrew Worboys, blends Sheik’s original songs with some key 80s pop favourites. The arrangements and mix are deliberately dense and all-enveloping for that boozy and druggy late-night vibe. The sound has authority, certainly, but at times makes it difficult to catch everything.

Mirrored surfaces reflect the audience to itself and while this is an often-used device, here it feels salutary. The action takes place on a brightly outlined revolve (stage design by Isabel Hudson; lighting by Berlage) that hardly ever stops moving. Around and around it whirls, as giddy as the over-entitled, over-moneyed, over-sexed, under-principled people who inhabit Patrick’s world. This perpetual motion has an early correlation in the stream of brand names Patrick and his friends spew out. In frantic pursuit of the next sensation, these hedonists seek validation in being able to afford the best of everything, or at least what all their peers agree is the best at any given moment.

You Are What You Wear, the women carol, reciting designer name after designer name. It reminds one of that incessant red-carpet question, “who are you wearing”. It’s such a creepy phrase, as if the carpet-walker were draped in another person’s skin. This is relevant to American Psycho, given that Patrick is a serial killer.

Ben Gerrard makes a formidable return as Patrick, an investment banker on the cusp of his 27th birthday. Gerrard looks even more sculpted and tightly wound than he did in 2019. His physique is tight as a drum and his body-fat looks non-existent. There’s an implicit level of control that shows up in his face as fear. This man cannot relax for a microsecond. Gerrard also speaks very quickly, sometimes too quickly, and gives Patrick an affected drawl that perhaps Patrick thinks makes him sound more patrician. It certainly doesn’t sound as if it’s the accent he grew up with. He is the complete fake.

American Psycho: the Musical. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Patrick is both very proud of and deeply anxious about his looks, his wardrobe, his sex appeal, his earning capacity and his social capital. This last thing is terribly important. So when his rival Paul points out that Patrick’s new business card is printed in a font that has been discontinued, Paul’s fate is sealed. Plus, Paul can always get into the latest hot restaurant whereas Patrick cannot (a very funny running gag), and he also likes to call Patrick by the wrong name, so …

Berlage smartly pumps the humour right up and keeps explicit violence to a minimum. The emphasis is not on the killing but on the death of Patrick’s already shrivelled soul. As he spins further and further out of control he turns into the man who wasn’t there, a cipher and possibly a pathetic fantasist.

Jason Winston is a charismatic Paul and Shannon Dooley, Angelique Cassimatis and Erin Clare are wonderful as the women in Patrick’s orbit. Amy Hack, Mark Hill, Kristina McNamara, Liam Nunan, Daniel Raso and Tom Sharah complete the terrific cast, who appear and reappear on that never-ending merry-go-round in multiple guises as if by magic. Or in a nightmare. Or both, really.

American Psycho: The Musical is at The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until 27 June 


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