Made famous for its Oscar winning performances by Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in 1989, the story of the Babbitt brothers is revisted in Dan Gordon’s new stage adaptation of Rain Man, starring Matthew Horne and Ed Speelers, and directed by Jonathon O’Boyle.
For those who never caught the original film, Rain Man is a tale of difference, acceptance and the capacities of human emotion. When selfish salesman Charlie Babbitt finds out that his father has died, he can’t wait to get his hands on a generous inheritance. What he doesn’t bank on is discovering he has a long-lost brother, Raymond, an ‘autistic savant’ with an astonishing memory and aptitude for numbers, who has received the full share. Charlie sets out to claim his half, taking Raymond away from the institution he has grown up in on a cross-state trip that will lead Charlie to a very unexpected outcome.
O’Boyle’s production has reductively been dubbed ‘Gavin and Stacey meets Downton Abbey’ in reference to the roles that gained the two men fame, Horne as Gavin in the BBC sitcom, and Speelers as footman Jimmy Kent in ITV’s period drama. (Side note: Ed Speelers also played the lead in the film Eragon, potentially my first ever crush. Just me? OK, moving on.) However, any temptation to shout ‘Gav-a-laaaaar!’ is forgotten as soon as Horne steps on stage.
Horne is dazzling as the severely autistic Raymond, with his attention to detail and obviously extensive research making for an utterly convincing performance and a truly endearing character. Disability is always a daunting role, both to play and to watch, made even more so by the immediate scrutiny of the theatre, yet Horne carries it with confidence and professionalism.
Ed Speelers’ sharp, fast talking portrayal of Charlie Babbitt makes for a commendable stage debut. Though his lines were occasionally lost in the back of the stage, he delivers the transition from self-centred, emotionally unavailable yuppie to an awakened young man with a renewed compassion very believably. Horne and Speelers’ chemistry carries the play through the simultaneously funny and deeply tender relationship between their characters, a particular highlight being the beautiful scene in which Charlie teaches Raymond to dance.They enjoyed strong support from the more minor characters, with my particular favourite being Elizabeth Carter.
Sadly, the rest of the production doesn’t quite match the quality of the two leads. The set was disappointingly unimaginative, where something quite impressive could have been staged. The scenes in Vegas were illustrated with a screensaver style backdrop of a city skyline, and the décor at the home of the Babbitt’s late father, presumably meant to indicate grandeur, looked merely like the scale was completely off. Props largely consisted of two beds and two windows that had to be repeatedly wheeled on and off, creating clunky scene changes accompanied by an albeit enjoyable selection of eighties music that the audience was forced to listen to for slightly too long.
Don’t let the lacklustre production elements put you off; Rain Man is worth going to see purely for the stunning performances of Matthew Horne and Ed Speelers. The show I saw, in my hometown of Eastbourne, got a standing ovation, which is pretty impressive considering most of the audience will be pushing 100 years old (if you’ve seen Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, you’ll know that Eastbourne is referred to as God’s Waiting Room). Dan Gordon’s script retains the essential elements of the original film and is still a heart-warming tale of family and acceptance, beautifully acted, and I’m reluctant to admit that I left the theatre with one or two tears in my eye.
Rain Man will show in Leeds Grand Theatre from 29 October to 3rdNovember. Tickets available here: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/rain-man/