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Review: The Retreat (Park Theatre)

Sam Bain, co-creator of Peep Show, Fresh Meat and Four Lions, debuts his first play

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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You'll know Sam Bain as the co-creator of screen comedies Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and Four Lions. He has no problem translating that humour to the stage – his first play, The Retreat is very funny, with an unusually high line-by-line hit rate and some stalls-convulsing gags.

Much of that is also due to Adam Deacon's effortlessly hilarious performance as Tony, a wise-cracking yet frowningly aggrieved drug-huffing chancer, who rocks up at a Buddhist retreat in the Scottish Highlands, where his over-achieving younger brother Luke is seeking enlightenment. Samuel Anderson plays his straight man, the former prostitute-using city chap trying to straighten himself out – but becoming a sanctimonious, self-denying bore in the process.

Kathy Burke's direction makes sure every joke lands with a bounce, keeping a lightness to proceedings – quote the dialogue and it probably wouldn't seem side-splitting, but the laughs come thick-and-fast. What The Retreat doesn't manage so well is the more structural rhythm – you can feel the gears grind as it moves from one backstory revelation to the next. Emotional moments are announced rather than smuggled in; while, say, Fresh Meat was so good at that split-second switch from crass comedy to unexpected tear-jerks, here the more serious undertones never exert much pull.

All the action takes place within one hut, with Paul Wills's set nicely evoking the spartan, stone-walled room, with its prayer flags, singing bowl and Buddha statues. Interruptions from Yasmine Akram as Tara, who paints herself green to try to embody a goddess ("sort of like Buddhist cosplay"), helps further deepen the conflict: she helps us see how a life of meditation can have huge, genuine, non-ironic benefits – but she also (like Tony) seems just a little too interested in Luke's money…

In our current yen for an almost competitive spirituality, Bain has found a rich topic to take the piss out of. He's able to have his cake and eat it – or to eat two cakes, really, by roundly sending up both holier-than-thou hipster hippies and Tony's bone-headed enthusiasm for the sesh. And Luke, by zealously trying to prove himself as a hard-core Buddhist, still just striving to be the best, was always going to get it wrong, really. The humour comes from watching that hypocrisy being pricked – albeit by someone who is also definitely a prick.

Bain's writing is astute on the imperfect, giddily grasping ways we try to solve our modern malaises. The two brothers are riddled with issues and both, really, are chasing shortcuts to solving them, the fast route to happiness. What Bain shows is that contentment is just as unlikely to be found in extreme self-denial as it is at the bottom of a baggie of coke. Both are really settling for a distracting high, rather than finding their real selves. Because that stuff is hard.

So hard, there's no solution in ninety minutes – and The Retreat thankfully offers no trite redemption. Instead, we're left with a familiar familial image: siblings driven mad by each other, but also ultimately there for each other.

The Retreat is at the Park Theatre until 2 December.

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