The 1988 comedy-drama film has been adapted for the stage in this inaugural production by The Classic Screen to Stage Theatre Company.
Rain Man tells the story of two brothers – Charlie, a car imports guy with the gift of the gab, and his before unknown older brother, Raymond, an autistic savant living in a care facility.
When their father dies, Charlie (Ed Speleers), whose business is in imminent financial distress, discovers that he is to inherit none of his father’s $3m estate – instead it has been put in trust for an unnamed beneficiary. Charlie uses his guile to figure out who is in receipt of the money he feels he’s rightfully owed, and ruthlessly attempts to ensure he gains his share by absconding with Raymond (Mathew Horne). What follows is a cross country adventure that takes both brothers on a journey of emotional growth.
As the original film is 30 years old, it almost becomes difficult to watch this adaptation with the dramatic change in the understanding of conditions like autism – at the time, the film was responsible for the misapprehension that people with autism naturally all had savant type abilities too. As a society more familiar with the autistic spectrum, and a society more aware of the diagnosis, at times it felt uncomfortable to be guided towards laughing at a character with learning and cognitive disabilities. In what was initially a very sweet moment involving Raymond dancing with Susan (Elizabeth Carter), the descent into the use of comical facial expressions felt unjustified and unnecessary.
It’s key here to point out that Horne never particularly played Raymond directly for laughs – he’s outspoken about his support of Mencap, and his inspiration for the role coming from his autistic older brother, so we wouldn’t expect anything else – but his natural talent for timing made light of the situations he found himself in, and often to great effect. His Raymond is funny, and charming, and it’s wonderful to watch difference facets of his character emerge as the production goes on. Horne’s stage presence is stunning; he’s easily the centre of the audience’s focus, and his physicality in terms of his ticks and stance were impeccably consistent and maintained for every second he was on the stage.
Speleers makes his stage debut with Rain Man, and while he performs admirably, the script and direction here don’t give him much chance to show off his skills – Charlie is either swearing and angry, or suddenly sympathetic. We’re introduced to Charlie in a slightly muddled first scene which spent too long attempting to set up his heartless businessman persona without every really achieving it. There were some nice touches in the direction when it came to showing that Charlie is more like his brother than anyone would have expected – their mirrored body language, their inability to hold eye contact and the way they both rattle off car facts with precision were subtly done, but really helped to drive home their similarities.
The performance was at its best in the quiet moments – the interactions between Speleers and Horne as the brothers gradually form a bond were really touching, and the closing scene proved incredibly emotional.
While the focus is obviously the brothers’ roadtrip (despite the distinct lack of any visible “roadtripping” besides a motel bedroom or two), the supporting cast take on important roles in their lives. Neil Roberts lends a sense of gravitas to the role of Raymond’s Dr Bruener, toeing a line between being a caring father figure for Raymond but also a medical professional. Elizabeth Carter’s Susan is a sweet, gentle character, which makes you wonder why she’s with the emotionally unavailable Charlie to start with, and Mairi Barclay takes on a host of quirky characters that felt at odds with the rest of the show – the airport waitress being a particular oddity.
Morgan Large’s set was a relatively simple one – there’s no box rooms or even any real doors to speak of here, just a plain backdrop with illuminated picture frames (the relevance of which I’m afraid I still don’t quite get). Sofas and chairs are wheeled on, in character which was a nice touch, but there are a good few scene changes that felt slow, leaving us with little more than a silhouette of the scene to come for slightly longer than was comfortable. Lighting, designed by Jack Weir, had moments of promise, but generally was unimaginative, reverting to a plain white wash for most scenes. The lit picture frames were effective in the Casino scene, and there was the clever use of hanging scenery to create a cocktail bar. I did enjoy the music a great deal, however – there were some superb hits from the 80s to accompany scene changes.
All in all, a slightly odd production, in that the performances from Horne and Speleers were strong, but nothing else seemed particularly memorable.
Performance: Monday 19 November, Royal & Derngate, Northampton
Becki is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. She also works for Royal & Derngate as Marketing and Press Assistant. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too. Becki also blogs at StageyRebel