Rain Man starring Mathew Horne – review at Milton Keynes Theatre – ‘an unimaginative staging’
Rain Man, the Oscar-winning 1988 film about two brothers, one an autistic savant, has been brought back to the stage with Mathew Horne in the role made famous by Dustin Hoffman.
The hit movie was an enjoyable, if manipulative, weepy in which Raymond, an autistic man with incredible memory and mental calculation skills, is liberated/kidnapped from a mental institution by his brother Charlie. Hustler Charlie eventually learns how to love from the one person who stereotype dictates won’t be able to show him affection.
Dan Gordon’s stage adaption of Barry Morrow’s screenplay had a previous outing a decade ago in which Josh Hartnett played Charlie in the West End. It’s less a theatrical reinterpretation than a condensation, the road trip element of the film exchanged for a series of static scenes in motel rooms.
This should tighten the focus on the brother’s relationship, but instead reduces the action to the aftermath of key events: we see Las Vegas only after the wins at the casino; Raymond’s recognition of his father’s car, a key moment in the film, is here pointed to offstage. It is hard to believe that Jonathan O’Boyle, who brought such dynamism to his stagings of Hair and Pippin last year, is responsible for this flat direction.
The film’s slow-burning exploration of the extraordinary capacity of humanity, is on stage rendered as riveting as reading the phone book for anyone other than Raymond.
Comparisons of Horne to Hoffman, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Raymond, are inevitable. Attitudes to autism have changed significantly since 1988, but the depiction of Raymond has not. While not quite an impression, Horne does little to make the role his own. Here is the famous crab-like shuffle, tics and self-harming slaps Raymond exhibits when over stimulated. Horne commands our attention through acting with a capital ‘A’, when more nuance is desperately needed.
Charlie, played by Ed Speleers making his stage debut, has two emotional settings – monotonous and shouty. His performance is hampered further by a limited gestural vocabulary, his hands either in his pockets or thwacking a table to make a point. A sweet moment where Charlie teaches Raymond to dance shows what depth of feeling a subtler approach can achieve.
The bumpy transfer from screen to stage is not helped by Morgan Large’s clunky set design with empty door frames pointlessly spun on and off. Jack Weir’s lighting appears permanently set to having ‘left the big light on’. It’s so bright in the brothers’ Las Vegas hotel room that you can see the crinkles in the skyline backdrop.
Three decades old, the film is a now-outdated depiction of autism. It simultaneously damaged and advanced wider knowledge of the developmental disorder and was responsible for connecting neurodiversity with assumptions of extraordinary abilities. This stage adaptation doesn’t do enough to shift that depiction forward into the 21st century.