Almost 30 years after the classic Hollywood film Rain Man was first shown in Cinemas in the UK, director Jonathan O’Boyle and writer Dan Gordon’s play adaption of the piece was welcomed at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh on Monday night with a standing ovation. A spirited performance from the cast ensured a brave, if flawed, exploration of the sensitive issue of disability, while providing highly amusing and at times very moving moments as well.
Ed Speleers (know for his appearances on Eragon and Downton Abbey) stars as businessman Charlie Babbitt, who takes his autistic brother Raymond, played brilliantly by Matthew Horne (Gavin & Stacey), on a cross-country ride across America in order to extract his share of their dead father’s will. Charlie gradually learns to love his long-lost brother, allowing Raymond to live life to the full.
Horne undoubtedly steals the show with his remarkably energetic yet nuanced performance. His firm projection and varied intonation imbues his character with more emotional depth than the original, and also does more to represent a greater range on the autism spectrum.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Speleers who, despite a strong performance in the second half, is hamstrung by his attempt in the first to add more bullishness and sleaze to Tom Cruise’s interpretation in 1988.
From the very first scene, a Jordan Belfort inspired Wall Street accent drives Speleers to sacrifice the moral and emotional complexity in Charlie’s character, by wrenching quick laughs from the audience with blasé reactions and vulgar histrionics. Although this helps to present Charlie, rightfully, as the aggressor and Raymond as the victim in their relationship, it means that a darkly comedic tone hangs over the rest of the play.
Consequently, as Raymond gains more and more autonomy in the second act, the play unfortunatly falls into the same trap as the film: Raymond’s condition becomes the comic obstacle for the sane and increasingly sympathetic hero, Charlie. So it is no surprise (but certainly, a great shame) that many in the audience on Monday night were driven to laughing at, rather than sympathising with, Raymond in the heart-breaking scenes of the final act.
The minimalist and geometrically inspired set design is also a promising deviation, but is let down by uninspired music choices which only mask clumsy set changes.
In a rare moment of novelty in the script, the doctor expresses his sympathy for Raymond’s condition: “I think I would find life unbearable if I couldn’t forget”.
Ironically, if only this production could forget its own, sometimes problematic past, then it could rise above its current rank of commendable and recommendable, to be both a timeless story of family and love, and a timely breakthrough for the autistic community.
1st – 6th October
Image: Robert Day