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Theatre Review (London): Rain Man (Adapted for the Stage by Dan Gordon)

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When fast-talking Charlie Babbitt’s father passes away he leaves $12 million to an unknown beneficiary. Feeling the sting of what he considers his father’s parting shot, and desperate to save his business, Charlie pursues the money to discover that it has been left to Raymond, an autistic brother he never knew he had. In a classic road-trip trajectory Charlie drives Raymond to Vegas to exploit his genius, realising much about his brother and himself along the way. A story originally told in the 1988 film of the same name, Rain Man has recently been brought to London’s West End with Josh Hartnett playing the role of Charlie and Adam Godley as the autistic savant Raymond.

It's not an easy charge, considering the acclaim and recognition the original film has received, but Dan Gordon’s adaptation, directed by Terry Johnson, hits only a few bum notes. Without a film's advantage of exterior shots and editing, the loss of much original pathos was inevitable, making the theatrical undertaking of the quasi-iconic tale quite risky. However, considering its youth on the stage, I left the theatre quite a bit more satisfied than in many other recent trips to London’s West End.

The draw for much of the audience (and critics), for the moment, is the latest of the Hollywood A-listers to tread the boards, Josh Hartnett. The actor is, if anything, at a distinct disadvantage because of his Clark Gable-like looks. Too easily come the cries of sight over substance and the obvious effect of his stardom on box office success. He needs to work twice as hard for critical appreciation from those who are too readily sceptical that he will display any skill beyond a smoulder.

The doubts are unfair, as Hartnett embodies a Charlie Babbitt almost equal to Tom Cruise’s solid performance in the original. With big shoes to fill, Hartnett establishes a character full of blind arrogance and bullish determination, and able to gradually reveal the soft side we all know is there. He is full of questions and sincere frustration; his many silences (which could almost be mistaken for a failure to remember lines) actually result in the sort of moments that exist in the 'real world'.

It is nice to see an actor on the stage not desperately distorting himself or over-dramatising for the sake of loading a moment. Hartnett’s pauses are more convincing than much fuss I have seen on the stage far too many times, as he gathers himself, searching for words whilst decoding the new information he is consistently being given: learning he has a brother, that the brother is autistic and can not be managed in the ‘usual’ ways, that the brother was the Rain Man of his imaginary childhood friendship, that he loves this brother, and that he must let this brother go. It is for these moments, along with his consistent and unyielding rendering of the yuppie with a heart, that Hartnett should be lauded.

I will dare to say that whilst his is also an exceptional performance, Adam Godley has a somewhat easier task in playing Raymond. Despite being the more iconic role, it does seem to pose fewer challenges and less need for restraint than the role of Charlie. Godley masters an awkward walk, a dull manner of speech, and other idiosyncrasies which are more about action than control. With an already somewhat ‘dopey’ appearance (apologies sir!), Godley’s casting was a greater stroke of genius than the resilient performance we see on stage. Working to his benefit is the immediacy of the theatre, a place in which a spectator’s sympathies can almost be enacted, as we are at close enough range to feel that we could hug poor Raymond should we so desire. Slick Godley is not; poignant he most definitely is, but with a much lighter weight on his shoulders than Hartnett, who must simultaneously battle through his good looks, the A-list prejudices against him, and the challenge of loading silences when performing alongside a character who is not even truly in the same scene.

All that said, neither performance matches those of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Aside from the evident advantage of editing and multiple takes which polish a film, it is an immense challenge to compete with an original article. Perhaps with time, as the theatre production itself develops, this disparity can be reduced. One can also not help but question if perhaps opinion would be altered had the theatrical production been the original and the film produced in its shadow. Impossible to determine, but definitely food for thought when considering the feelings of love or hate the audience may experience.

The same level of acclaim cannot be granted to the secondary characters, who unfortunately cannot compete with Hartnett's intensity or the delectable Godley. Dutifully and successfully ordinary are the various administrative characters played by Charles Daish and Colin Stinton, but the stage falls almost into pantomime with the giddy performance of Mary Stockley as Charlie’s girlfriend and the affectedness of Tilly Blackwood’s various characters.

With a cringe-worthy American accent, flailing hair, and clichéd girlfriend-style histrionics, Stockley eradicates any suggestion of Valeria Golino’s feisty Susanna from the 1988 film. Susanna was a woman worthy of Charlie’s affections because she was equally fiery, and her passion for him and her tenderness with both the brothers added to Charlie’s character and fed his narrative nicely. Stockley’s performance disappoints significantly on all counts, doing nothing but annoy and accessorize. As for Blackwood, her Vegas hooker, with an equally grating American accent, might get a few laughs, but they are to be credited to the adapter, Dan Gordon, rather than herself.

Other than its now-formulaic but unnecessary mention of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden, Gordon’s adaptation serves Barry Morrow’s original story well. It does not fall into the trap of overindulgence and sentimentality which the theatre often sets, and it works well by loading simple words rather than silences. As much as it can be, this is a real play, with the key performances feeding an authenticity that I hope to see more of under our prosceniums from now on.

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