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Review: Rain Man at Theatr Clwyd

By Antonia Merola Jones

Take an Oscar-winning beloved classic, replace Tom Cruise with an actor best known for his role in British soaps Hollyoaks and Coronation Street and transfer it to the stage – a foolhardy project? Not this time round.

The risk of taking a well-known film to stage, let alone the multiple Oscar-winning 1988 hit movie Rain Man, especially when audiences have such a strong connection to the original, is huge – not to mention how tricky it is recreating iconic moments.

But Bill Kenright’s production under the Classic Screen to Stage banner, currently on tour calling at Theatr Clwyd this week, proves adapting great movies to the stage can actually work.

At heart, a cross-country road trip (a genre which, perhaps, is fundamentally ill-suited to the confines of a stage) centres around two brothers reconnecting on a journey to self-discovery.

A story of brotherhood, acceptance and autism, the comedy-drama road trip sees self-centred, struggling salesman Charlie Babbitt, played by Chris Fountain, discovering his long lost brother Raymond (Adam Lilley understudying for Paul Nicholls) – an autistic savant with a genius for numbers –  has inherited the $3 million fortune following the death of his estranged father, and sets out to get ‘his half’.

Charlie ‘borrows’ Raymond from the institution where he has spent most of his life and the two brothers embark on a trip across America, learning a bit of humanity and compassion along the way.

The play’s format means this week-long drive mostly becomes a series of conversations in different hotel rooms – a basic, yet effective set design on stage. The classic 1949 Buick Roadmaster which belonged to their father – fundamental to the plot – is pointed to offstage. However, this does not detract from the entire casts’ stellar performances (amongst them Dominic Taylor as caring Dr Bruener and Mairi Barclay as Iris the Hooker). Lilley’s sensitive portrayal of the massively misunderstood Raymond is outstanding , recreating the shuffle, rocking back and forth, the tics and the monotonous delivery that Dustin Hoffman bought to the character in the film version, while reeling off stats and figures in disjointed fashion.

The touring stage performance, which runs at Mold’s Theatr Clwyd until Saturday (March 2), is directed by Jonathan O’Boyle who makes some excellent choices in reshuffling the story for the stage and the instantly recognisable 80s music that preludes each act, including Guns and Roses’ Sweet Child of Mine and Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, takes the audience on a nostalgic journey.

The show opens with young hot-shot Charlie, who is on the verge of going bankrupt, franticly trying to save his business and hold on to his girlfriend and secretary, Susan (played by Elizabeth Cater). Fountain is a suitably angry, shouty, frustrated, blokeish Charlie, whose American accent didn’t falter throughout the two-hour show – impressive for a guy who usually speaks with a broad Yorkshire accent.

Both Fountain and Lilley are excellent together and have a great connection on stage – a brilliant pairing for the show.  There is some really touching scenes between the brothers – notably when Charlie teaches Raymond to dance. We see Charlie soften towards his brother as he leads him by the hand and tucks him into bed – a pivotal moving scene which was cleverly handled and led to a few teary eyes in the audience.

Lilley absolutely steals the show in his brilliant portrayal of Raymond, physically inhabiting the skin of a man who lives by routines, unexpressive and is isolated in a world of his own making. It is both poignant and occasionally funny – although I did find it uncomfortable at times laughing at his plight, as 30 years on, the now out-dated depiction of autism was obvious –  however I feel this was because the play stuck very closely to the storyline of the film.

Not only does the show takes us on a road trip but it also takes the audience on a journey of emotions. We laughed, we cried, before a standing ovation at the end of the performance.  The play kept me enthralled from start to finish and would highly recommend seeing it – even if you haven’t seen the film. We have given Rain Man a standing ovation-worthy ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ rating.

For tickets, see Theatr Clwyd

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