A Hollywood heartthrob, a lauded British performer and a plot and title taken from a well-loved film; on paper Rain Man has all the ingredients of a West End hit. Matthew Amer was in the first night audience.
How do you take a road movie and put it on stage? The sense of travel is difficult to recreate. Under Terry Johnson’s direction and Jonathan Fensom’s fluid design, areas of the stage are blocked off as scenes change, creating different performance spaces for different stops on the journey of Charlie and Raymond Babbitt, two brothers reunited after a lifetime apart.
Charlie, played by screen star Josh Hartnett in his West End debut, is a hard-nosed wheeler-dealer. Let down by his father while still a kid, in Hartnett’s hands he is clenched fist, all emotion constricted deep inside until it is let out with a punch. Father Babbitt’s death has let Charlie down one last time, with his $12 million inheritance going to a brother he had all but forgotten, Raymond.
Institutionalised for most of his life, unable to cope in the real world, Raymond (Adam Godley) is an autistic savant. The only way Charlie can conceive to get his share of the money is to kidnap his brother, taking him away from the protective cocoon of his care home.
Like all good road movies, the physical journey taken by the brothers Babbitt is a metaphor for the emotional journey they both take. Raymond, played by Godley with heart-breaking attention to detail, stuttering movement and repetitive stock phrases, moves from a life a life controlled by institutionalised rituals to having the freedom and courage to chat in a bar and even kiss a girl. Charlie, who files any empathetic emotions away under ‘unneeded distractions’, learns to love a brother he didn’t know he had.
Dan Gordon’s adaptation hints at the effects of paternal pressure, as both Charlie and Raymond’s development are affected by their father’s bad choices, but the play’s beating heart is the growth of a relationship between an emotionally disconnected man and his brother who is not supposed to be able to from human bonds. When Raymond’s hand, kept to himself for most of the performance, reaches out to touch Charlie’s knee in reassurance, it is a gesture that reverberates around the entire theatre.