THE company producing the current touring version of Rain Man wears its theatrical mission on its sleeve. A product of the Bill Kenwright stable, it’s called “The Classic Screen To Stage Theatre Company,” and it acknowledges the heart-sinking truth that if theatres from the Lyceum to the Playhouse want to fill their seats these days, then they had better – as in all three of the big touring shows in Edinburgh this week – tackle a story already familiar from the dominant screen culture of our times, or face problems at the box office.
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh **** | Festival Theatre, Edinburgh **** | Playhouse, Edinburgh ***
What shows like Rain Man undeniably offer, though, is an interesting chance to see current actors in roles once made famous by huge Hollywood stars; and Jonathan O’Boyle’s brisk, unpretentious touring production – short on subtlety, long on good-hearted entertainment value – takes the famous leading roles played by Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in the 1989 film, and offers them to Mathew Horne of Gavin & Stacey, who plays autistic hero Raymond, and Ed Speleers, better known as handsome Downton Abbey footman Jack, who plays his cash-obsessed businessman brother, Charlie. In truth, Dan Gordon’s story is showing its age a little; almost 30 years on, much more is known and understood about the issues faced by high-performing autistic people, and the contribution they can make.
Yet Gordon’s sentimental framing of Raymond as an “idiot savant” with the power to transform his brother’s loveless life contains enough of a grain of truth to make for a satisfying, if fairly predictable, piece of drama; and Mathew Horne delivers a thoughtful, funny and moving performance as Raymond, while Ed Speelers, in his first-ever professional stage role, conjures up Charlie in a few deft brush-strokes, in a performance that is never deep, but always more than effective.
It was in 2003, only four years after the publication of the original real-life calendar, that Calendar Girls became a film, featuring a galaxy of stars led by Helen Mirren, and telling the story of how the lades of the Women’s Institute at Cracoe, in Yorkshire, decided to raise money for leukaemia research by posing for a calendar that would show them stark naked, but tastefully hidden behind items of traditional WI produce. Since then, the story has also been a hugely successful stage play; and now, it returns in its latest 2014 incarnation, as a musical which picks up many of the most poignant details of Tim Firth’s theatre script, and transforms them into a playlist of 16 songs.
The result is a slightly strange hybrid of a show, which takes a simple, truncated form of an already emotional story – the women were inspired by the death from Hodgkins’ disease, at only 53, of the husband of the show’s heroine, Annie – and fills it with musical numbers designed both to pluck at the heart strings, and to affirm the show’s central message about the invincibility of female power – even middle-aged female power – once unleashed. Some of the songs have that strange, Brexity edge that seems to have crept into recent British musicals, banging on confusedly about English character and British institutions. In the end, though, an all-star 18-strong cast that includes Karen Dunbar, Ruth Madoc, Fern Britton and Denise Welch, among many others, combine to ensure that this version of Calendar Girls is a richly comic and emotional experience; and one that generates a real sense of female solidarity, backed by good men, in an increasingly sombre world.
As for Sell A Door’s touring version of Madagascar, at the Playhouse – well let’s just say I’ve rarely seen a more obvious theatrical attempt to cash in on a hugely successful children’s movie, in this case DreamWorks’ 2005 hit, or one more successfully redeemed by the sheer hard work and good will of its cast. Itself something of a budget attempt to exploit the popularity of animal-story blockbusters like Lion King, Madagascar is brim-full of fun characters, notably the camp lemur king, Julien, brilliantly played here by Jo Parsons; and with Matt Terry leading the cast as hungry lion Alex, this deft and pleasingly modest production, directed by Kirk Jameson, succeeds in delighting the kids in the audience, while also offering a few good laughs for accompanying adults and a couple of foot-tapping songs for all the family.
Rain Man, final performances today; Calendar Girls is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until 13 October, and at His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 19 February until 2 March; Madagascar is at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, today, and at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 9-13 April