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Rain Man

by on 6 November 2018

Compassion Redeems

Rain Man

by Dan Gordon, based on the MGM motion picture from a story by Barry Morrow

Bill Kenwright and The Classic Screen to Stage Theatre Company at Richmond Theatre until 10th November, then on tour until 24th November.

Review by Mark Aspen

Can compassion be bought and sold? Every man may have his price, but wheeler-dealer Charlie Babbitt finds that, in spite of himself, his price is drastically reassessed in a journey of self-discovery.

This is a journey that we make this week at Richmond Theatre in an immersive re-imagining of the multi-Oscar winning film Rain Man. It is perhaps unusual to adapt a film for the stage, rather than vice-versa, but bringing a wide-vista film into the confines of a theatre allows the story to speak in a powerfully engaging way.


Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, Charlie Babbitt is trying to import four classic Lamborghinis, but they have been impounded at the docks, because they do not meet current emissions standards. A problem is that he has bought them with money he doesn’t have, but the egocentric Charlie knows how to bluster and stall. He knows when to wheel and when to deal. If fact, even his own employees, who include his fiancée Susan, think he is an “a**(*)hole”, which indeed might be an accurate character summary, but one that demeans an essential organ.


As his creditors close in, he gets the unexpected news that his estranged father has died. He greets his father’s death with cold-hearted distain, but the prospect of an inheritance promises a way out for his present dilemma. However, a meeting in his father’s home near Cincinnati, with a Mr Mooney, a lawyer representing his late father’s estate, shatters that prospect. He has only inherited his father’s rose bushes and his car, a classic 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible, which are amongst the causes of their estrangement. The bulk of the estate has been put into a confidential trust. The confidentially is no protection against Charlie’s hacking abilities, and he soon has conned his way to the trustee, Dr Bruener, who is principal at a psychiatric nursing home. In confronting Dr Bruener to demand what he sees as his inheritance, he discovers that the main beneficiary is Raymond Babbitt. To his amazement Raymond is his brother, who had been sent to the home when Charlie was little more than a baby.


Charlie decides to abduct Raymond from the nursing home, hoping to gain custody of his brother and get control of the money. Raymond is autistic and obsessively observes strict routines. However, he also has savant syndrome, with a phenomenal memory and a prodigious ability to carry out mental calculations. As they travel back to Los Angeles together in their father’s Buick, Charlie not only learns about their early family lives, but much about himself. The journey, and Raymond, redeem Charlie’s marred personality.

The redeeming nature of the journey is much better served on the stage than on the big screen, where the geographical road trip of some 2,200 miles dominates. Charlie’s personal inner journey is the focus of director Jonathan Boyle’s intense stage version of Rain Man. Designer Morgan Large’s set is simple and versatile, comprising mainly a reconfiguring set of giant empty picture frames, animated by Jack Weir’s delineating lighting design. These are existential symbols of the mental pictures, framed in recall, of the divergent childhoods of the two brothers. When, in Las Vegas, their lives re-converge the frames vanish.

Ed Speleers, a seasoned exponent of both the big and small screen, makes his stage debut as Charlie. In an engaging performance, Speleers portrays the transformation of the abrasively adamant trickster, into a caring and concerned human, as the hard exterior softens and conscience and compassion begin to emerge. He took the audience from loathing his character to admiring him.

The part of Raymond is an enormously difficult role, playing an individual who is simultaneous afflicted with a burden of mental and emotional impediments and blessed with incredible intellectual skills. Mathew Horne pitches his depiction just right between understatement and hyperbole, avoiding the danger of mockery and engendering a warm empathy for his character. His cramped stance and constant tremor spoke of Raymond’s anxiety and nervous energy.

The character of Susan, Charlie’s fiancée serves to highlight both his moral weaknesses and the gradual revelation of his innate humanity. Elizabeth Carter gives a spirited and fluid interpretation of the part, supportive of Charlie’s predicaments, for good or ill, but leaving him in disgust at his initially uncaring treatment of Raymond.

The face of authority, and authority sometimes misjudged, are Dr Brunner, played with great insight by Neil Roberts, and the attorney Mr Mooney and the court-appointed psychiatrist Dr Marston, both played with suitable gravitas by Adam Lilley. Brunner and
Marston had caught up with the brothers in Las Vegas, where Raymond’s calculation skills have netted Charlie (a bankruptcy preventing) $80,000 at the blackjack tables, before being ejected by the casino management simply for being too successful. Brunner delivers an injunction to Charlie to regain custody of Raymond, but it up to the biased Marston to convince the court of the merits either way. Unlike in the film, this staged Rain Man leaves the forward story hanging, a much more interesting (if non-Hollywood) ending.


Of the supporting roles, special mention must be made of Mairi Barclay, who triples as Lucy, the put-upon secretary at Charlie’s nefarious car dealership; as Sally, the gob-smacked waitress who witnesses Raymond’s memory and cognitive prowess; and as the deliciously pneumatic Iris the Hooker, who populates the purlieus of the Vegas casinos.


The eponymous “Rain Man”, a childhood imaginary friend of Charlie’s, was it turns out a false memory, and was in fact Raymond himself. On the subject of mishearing, all-in-all the cast of this staged Rain Man are exceptional, but there is a niggling tendency with some to forget that the stage needs a bigger voice then the screen.

Rain Man is a journey, the actual road trip a metaphor for the huge emotional journey undertaken by the brothers. It considers the (often false) value of money, the important value of compassion, and the strength of family ties. Charlie discovers much about himself and about his past. The early loss of their mother weakened the coherence of their family and their father’s rejection of Raymond revolts Charlie when he discovers that their father’s own name had been transferred between the infant brothers. The father’s over-expectations of his older and “normal” son had in due course led to their permanent rift.

The journey is an adventure that tightly bonds the brothers, and the powerful coda to this play is a simple but moving expression of their brotherly affection. In its touching poignancy, this simple ending moved the gripped, and hitherto silent, audience to an audible gasp!

Mark Aspen
November 2018

Photography by Robert Day

From → Drama, Reviews

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