Rain Man, the multi-Oscar winning movie, was, for me, one of the most iconic American films of the 1980s, bringing together two of Hollywood’s most celebrated and charismatic stars of the era – Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. But it wasn’t the superstars that made it so memorable; it was the resounding power of a simple, humanitarian story, which boldly portrayed a vulnerable, autistic man as a lead character, not achieved with such effect since Steinbeck’s tragic literary classic, Of Mice and Men. Not only did the film bring to light more public awareness and understanding of autism and other such conditions, but it perhaps led viewers to question their own humanity, in the decade that spawned the money-hungry yuppie. Since then, audiences have continued to enjoy similar themes. Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, featuring an autistic boy as the main character was a huge success as both a bestseller and then an award-winning stage production.
Society’s understanding of and appreciation of autism has improved greatly since 1988 when Rain Man first hit the big screens, so it is perhaps inevitable that the story has been revived in the form of a stage production, as is the current trend. Recent Woking New Victoria touring productions of Legally Blonde, Dirty Dancing, Sister Act, Ghost, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, are such examples that have made the transition from one genre to another, with greater, or, sadly, in my experience, lesser effect. Things I have come to dread about these theatrical adaptations: dreadful, nasal American accents, un-nuanced scripts, major jumps or ironing out of the plot, and, in the case of musicals, un-original and immediately forgettable renditions of songs, that both performers and audience struggle to get through without looking at their watches to see when they can nip out to get a refill at the bar.
British films such as Kinky Boots, Calendar Girls and Billy Elliot have been much more successful in their reincarnation than their American counterparts however, so I was heartened to hear that this production of Rain Man was attributed to Bill Kenwright, the acclaimed British West End theatre and film producer, and the Classic Screen to Stage Production Company. In an attempt to banish any preconceptions and apprehensions, I guiltily decided to watch Rain Man on Netflix the day before the performance. At least if it was a disappointing production, I would have enjoyed the original film again, which I hadn’t seen since its debut in 1988.
The story, in a nutshell, is beautifully simple. Self-centred, cash-strapped car-dealer/hustler Charlie Babbitt discovers that not only his estranged father has died, leaving him a pittance, but his $3 million estate has been left in trust to his institutionalised autistic brother Raymond. A brother he never knew he had. Enraged by the perceived injustice, Charlie proceeds to abduct Raymond from his hospital home and take him on an eventful road journey, in an attempt to provoke a deal and a share of the inheritance. Of course, the journey is not just literal.
Although slightly concerned by a last-minute change of cast, I was heartened to see a pretty sizable audience on the opening night at the New Victoria, many of whom would not have been old enough to have seen the original film debut. Lead roles of Charlie and Raymond Babbitt were played by Chris Fountain (of several TV soap acclaims) and lesser-known understudy Adam Lilley, respectively. The role of Raymond Babbitt (the autistic ‘savant’ brother) was previously played by the more familiar Matthew Horne, of Gavin and Stacey and many other fame. Large shoes to fill.
The opening scenes stayed true to the original film script, and, to my initial relief, the American accents were not at all distracting. Fountain, as Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise in the 1988 film), exuded the right amount of obnoxious energy and arrogance, without the character becoming just shouty. The anticipated appearance of Raymond did not disappoint. The audience found him convincing and endearing. Transparent set changes did not distract, and were enhanced by snippets of contemporary eighties music, with more than a nod to a British audiences.
The second act took bolder liberties with the original script, and to great success. The divergences brought out more humour, and accentuated the transformation in Charlie Babbitt and the developing relationship with his new-found brother. Although the famous casino scene occurred offscreen, the poignancy of the events were not missed, and the subsequent finale was as moving and delightful as the original version.
So, the transformation from Oscar-winning film to stage production was successfully achieved, as attested by the enthusiastic reception of the audience at curtains. The physicality of Lilley’s performance of Raymond, and Fountain’s sustained emotional energy of Charlie were most admirable. On a bitterly cold January evening, the audience left their seats with warm hearts and, hopefully, a restored sense of humanity.
My advice, see both the stage and the film productions – they both have a lot to give.
[Amanda Briggs, January 2019]
Rain Man is being performed at the New Victoria theatre, Woking from Monday 22 January to Saturday 26 January, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday