Writer: Dan Gordon from the screenplay by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
The risk in taking a well-known, well-loved film and transferring it to the stage is that audiences have such a strong connection to the original that any attempt to reinvent it could fail to meet expectations. As such, the Classic Screen to Stage Theatre Company may seem like a foolhardy project. The peril of simply recreating iconic moments from film, without imbuing them with an original creative vision or purpose, is set against the possibility that those who are drawn to a production because of its source material could leave disappointed by a production that could never match the original.
Perhaps the trick is to take films which were not obvious hit vehicles at the time, in which case the choice of Rain Man, Barry Levinson’s multiple Oscar-winning film from the 1980s, is a highly strategic one. At heart a road trip (a genre which, perhaps, is fundamentally ill-suited to the confines of a stage) the story of two brothers reconnecting is here stripped back to its key aspects of character and dialogue, and Dan Gordon’s script makes some excellent choices in streamlining the story for the theatre.
Charlie (Ed Speelers) is a car salesman on the verge of going bankrupt, outwardly unaffected by the death of his estranged father when the news is broken in the play’s opening scene. Learning that he has been cut off from the family inheritance in favour of an unnamed beneficiary, Charlie teeters on the brink of indignant self-justification, until he discovers the existence of older brother Raymond (Matthew Horne), an autistic savant detained in a care home. Charlie’s journey to self-enlightenment is built around his attempts to exploit his brother for financial gain, until finding a deeper level of connection which sees beyond the material experiences of family.
Dustin Hoffman famously won his second Best Actor Oscar for the role of Raymond, and Matthew Horne risks not just the modern cultural ‘able-ist’ pitfalls of an able actor taking on a disabled character, but also the accusation of failing to match Hoffman’s emotional vulnerability and intensity. As it is, Horne’s committed and consistent performance never feels like an exploitation of the autistic character, and the warmth of the relationship between him and Charlie is a keystone of the success of this production.
Whilst Horne gets the more dramatically ‘performative’ role, it is left to Ed Speelers to convey the emotional road trip that Charlie undergoes. By necessity, Raymond is limited in his emotional experience, and so the entire character arc of the story falls to Charlie. Speelers makes the transition from selfish capitalist to warm-hearted brother in a way that convinces. The mania and energy of his early performance contrasts well with the stillness and stability of the play’s closing scene, and whilst the briskness of the production rubs off many of the rough edges and details of his emotional growth – and Charlie’s relationship with his girlfriend lacks the same depth of emotional transition as that of his journey towards his brother – there is enough here to make the journey feel authentic.
Whereas in the film it was Hoffman’s performance which made the story memorable, here it is Speeler’s role which succeeds in having the strongest dramatic effect on the audience.
There are some awkward moments in Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction, with a set designed by Morgan Large that is functional but lacks much dramatic interest. The smaller roles, broadly facilitating exposition with little more dramatic purpose, are carried well, especially Elizabeth Carter in the under-developed role of Susan, Charlie’s girlfriend. Her empathic response to Raymond stands in powerful contrast with Charlie’s lack of interest and focus on personal gain. Adam Lilley and Neil Roberts, as the medical professionals in whose hands Raymond’s future lies, walk the fine line between care and control that reflects well contemporary concerns around the treatment of disability.
Two strong central performances make this a production worth catching, even if there is something unavoidably lost in the shift in scale from screen to stage.
Runs until 6 October 2018 | Image: Robert Day