Classic Screen to Stage Theatre Company
Northern Stage, Newcastle
Within the opening moments of Dan Gordon’s play, I realised why I relish so much stage adaptations of American movies.
It’s the fierce energy of the script, translating itself from the big screen with a momentum and fizzing electricity that can make much our domestic theatre seem on sleeping pills. Playwrights can learn a lot from screen writers.
Everyone knows the '88 Hollywood film Rain Man, where the terrific performances of Dustin Hoffman and (more surprisingly) Tom Cruise dragged in their wake no fewer than four Oscars.
And the story is irresistible. The go-getting, self-centred salesman Charlie Babbitt, facing financial meltdown, puts his faith in the expected legacy from his recently deceased but hated father, only to discover the three million dollars has been left to Charlie’s previously unknown brother Raymond. Raymond is an autistic savant with a genius for numbers who can memorise a telephone directory but who has not the slightest interest in money or many other of our destructive fascinations. His strange world and behaviour is very much his own, a fact that enrages and confuses others (especially Charlie) more than it does himself.
Charlie’s desperate efforts to get his share of the inherited loot is both a physical journey (the brothers end up in a Las Vegas casino) but also a spiritual odyssey that eventually humanises him, peeling back layers of dark family secrets and bringing a true awareness of himself and his brother, whom he initially sees merely as a potential if utterly exasperating cash cow.
But it's never indulgent or cosy. The play is scripted with such a razor-sharp pen and delivered at such a pace as to have no time for such potential traps. When it does choose to draw breath and slow it all down, it creates moments of great tenderness and emotion, such as Charlie slowly, awkwardly teaching his brother to dance. Raymond moves as stiffly as an unoiled Tin Man. His brain is both childlike and brilliant as he constantly quotes the famous Abbott & Costello banter from the "‘Who’s on first / What’s on second" sketch or reels off bewildering facts and statistics.
Contrast this with Charlie, fizzing like a frustrated firecracker.
Morgan Large’s set design is a mixed bag, both modern and old-fashioned, a striking three-dimensional Kandinsky-style geometric backdrop, imaginatively lit by Jack Weir, in front of which different naturalistic furniture is brought on and off for the short scenes—a strange stylistic amalgamation, though the high-volume '80s linking soundtrack nicely distracts us.
Generally, I’m jumping about with enthusiasm for this production of what is a wonderful American fable. Against which there’s the strange case of the missing programme. The production is on a national four-month tour to fourteen top venues. Yet there is no programme whatsoever, not even a single printed sheet.
So I can tell you from the publicity flier that it’s directed by Jonathan Boyle and I can almost tell you who plays the brothers, except Paul Nicholls (photographed on the flier as Raymond) is now played by Adam Lilley. Chris Fountain plays Charlie as advertised. I managed online to find the names of the other cast members, who are Elizabeth Carter, Mairi Barclay, Dominic Taylor, Joe Sellman Leava, Hannah Barker and Joshua Diffley. Nowhere could I find details of who plays whom, so apologies dear thespians. A rum do.
What I can say is that the cast is uniformly excellent with both brothers creating unforgettable contrasting performances that in turn have us laughing in the aisles and sucking in our breath. Larger-than-life but utterly lifelike.