Apollo Theatre, London W1
Opened 19 September, 2008

Three days after giving a warm review to Calendar Girls, I find Rain Man, another stage adaptation of another sentimental movie, getting up my nose somewhat. What’s the difference between the two? Part of it might be nationalism: I may be more prepared to get my hankie out for home-grown material. Then there’s West End snobbery: Calendar Girls opened as astute seasonal programming in a conservative regional house, whereas Rain Man arrives in a West End which is the subject every few months of gloomy think-pieces about the dearth of serious, straight drama therein.
But I think the real reason is that Rain Man seems to offer more but ends up giving less. Barry Levinson’s 1988 picture is partly a road movie, partly an odd-couple movie, but its core is redemption. It’s not about the artistic savant Raymond Babbitt, it’s about his selfish huckster brother Charlie’s getting of humanity. It pretends to be concerned about Raymond’s condition, but actually it exploits him as a walking plot mechanism for the salvation of Tom Cruise.
For Tom Cruise, in this version, read Josh Hartnett, the latest Hollywood star to grab some West End stage kudos. Hartnett, more granite than Cruise, quickly and vigorously positions his Charlie as an unpleasant person, mendacious in business and commitment-phobic in his personal life. However, the “real”, “human” Charlie starts shining through far too early, almost at the moment at which he abducts Raymond from his care home; what we see in the final scene is not someone taking tentative steps on the road to acquiring a heart but a minor (and slightly potty-mouthed) saint.
As Raymond, Adam Godley’s vocal riffs are more penetrating, even trumpeted. Godley, whose once-baby face is beginning to grow old without ever having quite grown up, gives Raymond a constantly furrowed brow of incomprehension and mild anxiety, and lopes through the story like a vexed bloodhound. (This is intended as a compliment.) Terry Johnson directs efficiently; Jonathan Fensom’s design of wipes, trucks and flats is rather too obviously an attempt to accommodate a filmic range of settings onstage. And in the end, the play gives us nothing that the film doesn’t – not even a sense of liveness, because in Dan Gordon’s adaptation these don’t feel like live people.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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