Melissa Blease reviews Rain Main, starring Chris Fountain, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 19 January
Screenwriter Barry Morrow claims he never intended his Oscar-winning script for the multi-award winning 1988 film Rain Man to be a story about autism. “It was simply a tale of two estranged brothers, their journey and their fragile redemption,” he said, in an interview with the Guardian last year.
But psychiatrist Dr Darold Treffert – an autism expert who worked on the film as a script consultant – begs to differ. “Rain Man was the best thing that ever happened to autism,” he said, contributing to the same feature analysing the film’s legacy three decades on. “No gigantic public education or PR effort could have produced the sensational awareness that Rain Man brought to the national and international radar screen,” he added. And I’m sorry, Mr Morrow; I know you wrote the story and everything, but I – like many others – am with the doctor on this one.
30 years ago, children with conditions that we now understand to be autism, or Asperger’s Syndrome, or PDD, or Dyspraxia, or ADHD, were classified as ‘educationally sub-normal’ if they were of school age, and regarded as ‘backwards’, ‘retarded’ or ‘a bit of a loony’ as adults. So, for cinema-goers in search of a bit of light entertainment to suddenly find themselves immersed in, involved with and thoroughly captivated by the relationship between selfish, petulant yuppie Charlie Babbitt (an easy-to-relate to stereotype, back in the day) and his estranged, eccentric brother Raymond (the inadvertent recipient of their father’s massive inheritance, described by his doctor as an ‘autistic savant’) was a pretty radical experience.
Given the context, then, it’s a bit of a shame that Bill Kenwright’s Classic Screen to Stage Theatre Company’s inaugural production of Rain Man fails to deliver the impact one would expect from a drama based around such themes. Not that’s it’s not good – it’s actually very, very good in many, many ways (and the drama moves along to a thoroughly invigorating 1980s soundtrack too, for which extra points are awarded). But for contemporary audiences so recently enthralled by, say, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it occasionally veers a little bit too close to Forrest Gump.
Adam Lilley (understudying for Paul Nicholls) offers a sensitive portrayal of the massively misunderstood Raymond, recreating the shuffle, the tics and the monotonous delivery that Dustin Hoffman bought to the character in the film version, but bringing a more personalised, distinctive charisma to the stage role, while Chris Fountain is a suitably gruff, frustrated, blokeish Charlie, a man in the midst of many muddles.
The pair never, however, seem to bond on the emotional level that the unfolding situation and their developing relationship suggests they might – more focus is given, for example, to Raymond’s strict ‘rules’ around whether maple syrup should be delivered in advance of pancakes, or which branch of Kmart his underwear should be purchased from, than his remarkable memory and mathematical genius, while Charlie never really allows him (or us) the time to reflect on the family dramas and motivations that have led the pair to the point they’re at when we meet them.
And, while we’re brought along for the ride on their road trip (Charlie ‘borrows’ Raymond from the institution he’s incarcerated in – cue all manner of comedy/catastrophic capers), we’re never really invited to join them, resulting in a production that holds many charms but few challenges.