Touching, funny and defiant - Rain Man will make you laugh and cry

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Put the summer spectaculars back in store. Put the pantomime on hold. At the Devonshire Park, the autumn season opens this week with an engaging, compelling and moving Rain Man – and proper theatre is back.

You may need a second glance at your programme to confirm that this is a Bill Kenwright production. Yes, Bill of the Agatha Christie revivals and the stomping musicals. His newest venture, the Classic Screen To Stage Theatre Company, might not win catchiest title of the year, but if Kenwright can give wheels to productions of this quality, then theatres and audiences will lap it up.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle and writer Dan Gordon assuredly steer that screen-to-stage transition, filleting out the essence of the story, and playing down the road trip element – central to the movie but potentially full of potholes on stage. A spare and flexible set works convincingly, although the Las Vegas casino is a little light on glitz.

But Rain Man does not depend on clever effects and fancy sets. It is all about the story, and about the touching, funny and defiant journey of discovery taken by two brothers. With an automobile business on the rocks, Charlie learns that his estranged father has died and left his fortune not to Charlie, but to an older brother he never knew. That brother, Raymond, is autistic and had been shuffled away to a closed clinic.

Charlie’s initial project, to reclaim the inheritance, becomes a mission to reclaim his brother, liberating Raymond from the clinic and going on the run. Their relationship is fragile, volatile, but ultimately a triumph of the improbable over the conventional. And the performances of these two central characters are breathtakingly good.

Ed Speleers – an award winner in Downton Abbey – seems at first too fresh-faced and likeable to be the hard-edged, quite amoral businessman juggling debts and fleeing from creditors. But stay with his character as he discovers, not only his family history, but himself. This is fine acting and the process is excellently judged.

Opposite Speleers, Mathew Horne’s portrayal is phenomenal. Every twitch and gesture, every stare or sideways glance, every mutter or verbal outburst: Mathew is in the skin of the savant Raymond. We laugh with him but not at him, we cry for the injustices and we learn, perhaps, a little about ourselves. This may be a pretty long way from Gavin and Stacey, but that only shows what a superb actor Mathew really is.

The thirty years since the Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman movie have seen an enormous shift in attitudes to disability and awareness of autism. There is no longer a gulf between abled and disabled, and autism is no longer a disability but a condition, perhaps a set of different abilities. It is even a variant on genius: after all, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was surely on the spectrum somewhere.

Charlie, though, must steer around 1980s prejudices as he first connects with Raymond, briefly exploits him – the extraordinary mental gifts usefully beat the bank in Vegas – and then forms with him a bond as tough as sinew.

The medical and legal establishment are well represented, and not without their own humanity, by Neil Roberts as Dr Bruener and by Adam Lilley’s Dr Marston. Elizabeth Carter has great animation as supportive fiancee Susan, and excellent support comes from Mairi Barclay, Joe Sellam Leava and Hannah Barker.

Rain Man will make you laugh, cry, and question. You will be involved, angry and ultimately reassured. Yes, proper theatre. By Kevin Anderson.

read more: A rare oppportunity for Q&A session with Ian Hislop and Nick Newman writers of The Wipers Times