REVIEW: Rain Man at Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, April 23-27, 2019
PUBLISHED: 15:31 25 April 2019 | UPDATED: 15:33 25 April 2019
Rain Man was a film dedicated to explaining to the world that being different was OK. That being different was fascinating. That we're all crazy, in our own weird ways. So can a play do the same thing as successfully, wonders Katie Jarvis (who has a particular fear of spontaneous human combustion)
Rain Man, adapted by Dan Gordon, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, Tuesday, April 23-Saturday, April 27
“You don't have to be handicapped to be different. Everyone is different.” Kim Peek, inspiration behind Barry Morrow's character Raymond Babbitt.
We're all different.
The 1980s: Bon Jovi, Culture Club, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Hair that fully celebrated the architectural possibilities of sprays 200 times stronger than graphene. Shoulder pads that gave you the upper physique of Mr T and the lower body of Olive Oyl. Sleeves that only your dad wore below the elbow – cool dudes rolled them up, even in Antarctic conditions, because we were Don Johnson. We were Cyndi Lauper. We were David Bowie. We were Michael Jackson and Gary Glitter until we definitely, definitely weren't.
We wore Opium by YSL and sparkly glitter tights.
Except that I didn't. Because both were combustible. My life had been ruined in the late 70s by reading a Reader's Digest article on spontaneous human combustion. Its crowning feature was – allegedly – a photo of a lone surviving limb. (Not even sure it would be printable in a mainstream mag nowadays.)
Tragically, that one casual read put me off anything vaguely inflammatory. Glitter tights. Perfume. Hair spray. I'd only attend discos if persuaded that my fellow dancers were fully versed in how to use a fire extinguisher.
This is all kind of irrelevant – except that Rain Man plays out to an 80s soundtrack. And except that Rain Man celebrates a particular facet of humanity.
That we're all different. We're all crazy. We all have our issues.
We're all different.
I'm sitting in the Everyman, Cheltenham, mesmerised by the opening scene of Rain Man. It's the 1980s; Charlie Babbitt (Chris Fountain) is in his office, manically trying to ward off overdue-loan collectors and the deeply dissatisfied customers of his dramatically failing car business. He shrieks. His girlfriend Susan (Elizabeth Carter) shrieks. His secretary shrieks. Customers shriek down phone lines. The phones shriek. It's a shriek scene.
I'm mesmerised by the shrieks; by the to and fro of a man fighting to keep his life together. A man going under. By the noise and chaos of excuses, lies, stallings.
Ian nudges me and nods at the stage.
“Those phones aren't actually plugged in.”
So, the thing is, I keep wanting to talk about the film, rather than the play.
Rain Man – Hoffman and Cruise; Cruise and Hoffman. A film that introduced audiences to the concept of autism but asked them not to shake hands because physical contact feels uncomfortable.
A film that put, centre stage, a high-functioning character who could memorise a phonebook but not use a phone. Who'd read Hamlet but whom psychology passed by. Who could instantly count the number of toothpicks dropped from a container, but who couldn't divide a dollar in half.
A film about an autistic savant.
An amazing film about an unscrupulous man, Charlie, who discovers his stern dad has left his fortune to a brother, Raymond, he never knew he had. A brother, moreover, whom he considers a 'retard'. But when Raymond is left alone in a sad motel room, while Charlie plays around with his girlfriend next door, he memorises a phonebook. A whole half of a phonebook: every name and number between A and halfway through J.
And suddenly Charlie realises he has a potential – if innocent – cardsharp on his hands. A key to scamming every casino in LA.
My question is this: Why would you take a perfect film – which can still be watched at the touch of a button – and transfer it to the stage?
And, to be honest, that is a good question. Because a film has space and time: space and time enough to nuance Charlie's current cruelty into hurt he suffered as a child; to make an audience fall in love with the strangeness and predictable unpredictability of Raymond; to take two brothers, separated by harsh reality, and bond them into a family again.
Does a stage version have space and time to manage that, too?
This play, certainly, is deeply faithful to the film. Chris Fountain brings Charlie shoutingly, vividly, manically to life. And Adam Lilley is astonishing as Raymond, studied in his every gesture; his every move; even how he holds his hands. Elizabeth Carter as Charlie's long-suffering girlfriend (now this is a problem, in all honesty. Most people would go out with Tom Cruise. Few people would go out with the Charlie of the stage-version), who feels deeply for Raymond.
And the answer is, no; the stage version doesn't have the depth and range of the film. This play is too much action; too many disparate scenes; too little bonding.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes, I honestly did. I sat there fascinated. Maybe, if I hadn't seen the film, it wouldn't have worked so well for me.
But I have seen the film. A film that taught me that normality is a redundant concept; that we're all crazy, in our own way. Spontaneous human combustion. Noticing irrelevant details. Memorising phonebooks.
A film that made me realise that Dave the Engine – the boy who stayed in his room, at the end of my university dorm, memorising train timetables back in the 80s – maybe was a bit more lonely than I ever knew.
• The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk