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Rain Man on stage

We’re going back to the 80s this week in Brighton with well-loved film Rain Man making a comeback on stage at the theatre Royal until Sat 13 Oct.

It’s the funny and tear-jerking story of self-centred car salesman Charlie Babbitt who finds out he has a long-lost older brother, Raymond – an autistic savant, who has inherited the family fortune. Charlie sets out to get ‘his half’ of the cash via a road trip that ends up bringing the men together.

The Oscar-winning 1988 film paired Dustin Hoffman as Raymond with Tom Cruise as Charlie. Filling their considerable shoes in the theatre version are Gavin & Stacey’s Mathew Horne and Downton Abbey’s Ed Speleers – in his stage debut.

The original Raymond, the programme reminds us, was based on a real life man called Kim Peek who screenwriter Barr Morrow encountered and who subsequently became something of a celebrity.

It can feel awkward watching an actor play someone with a disability but it’s made easier in Rain Man because Raymond constantly, if inadvertently, gets the upper hand at the expense of his selfish brother.

Raymond’s jacket and the tilted head are instantly recognisable from Dustin Hoffman’s performance but there the similarity ends. In fact, it’s a credit to Horne that I stopped remembering that it was him in the part, anxiously shuffling baseball cards and impersonating TV games shows and Three Stooges sketches.

Raymond’s phenomenal memory is a key part of the story and it must have been quite a feat for Horne to learn his lines because besides naturalistic dialogue he has to recall a series of dates, flights statistics and more. Ed Speleers meanwhile, comes across as less aggressive than I remember Cruise being but brings real humanity to the later scenes as the brothers grow closer. Elizabeth Carter is great as Charlie’s brassy, crimp-haired girlfriend Susan, happy to fib over a car deal but not to sanction Charlie’s early treatment of Raymond.

The set is stylised and the action takes place in a series of rooms – so, no, we don’t get to see the old Buick that first brings the brothers together, nor, disappointingly, a full Vegas scene. I was put off at first by the amount of blank space at the back of the stage from the angle I was sitting but sound effects and touches like the light from the TV bathing Raymond as he watches his beloved shows helped create atmosphere.

The story could be set in any period but it’s a good move from the production company to keep it in the 80s. Big hair, stone washed jeans, a mobile phone like a brick and retro hits in the scene changes create a nice slice of nostalgia.

My own memory of the film was sketchy and I mainly recalled the key comic scenes, so I was moved by the story over again. My husband had never seen the movie but enjoyed the play all the same and it gave him a new line for the drive home: “Of course, I’m a really excellent driver.”

Rain Man is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, Mon 15 – Sat 20 Oct. Tickets are from £13.90 It will also be at the Hawth in Crawley in February

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