A city boy tries to find spiritual redemption in this black comedy from ‘Peep Show’ writer Sam Bain, directed by Kathy Burke
There’s some major sitcom wattage behind this production at the Park Theatre. ‘The Retreat’ is directed by Kathy Burke, with a script by Sam Bain, who, along with Jesse Armstrong wrote laugh-fest TV series like ‘Fresh Meat’ and the BAFTA-winning ‘Peep Show’.
Trying to escape a failed marriage and career in the City, Luke (Samuel Anderson, aka Danny Pink in ‘Doctor Who’) has ended up seeking enlightenment at a Buddhist retreat in the Scottish Highlands. But it’s tough to transcend when your no-hope, drug-addict older brother turns up with a Toblerone, debts and a pocket full of coke. It’s basically the tale of Caned and Abel.
This is Bain’s first theatre script and it has all of the hallmarks of the merciless, close-quarters character comedy his TV work thrives on. Jokes fly like machine-gun fire as an increasingly zen-free Luke and his brother, Tony (Adam Deacon), shoot holes in each other’s life choices. Little of the fad-filled selfishness of the rat-race of twenty-first-century Britain escapes.
There are some genuinely funny lines here. And Burke makes sure that those laughs aren’t too lazy. Every character on stage has their agenda, but, significantly, Luke’s need for something more than his previous life is allowed weight. It doesn’t subject Buddhism to easy mockery.
Burke’s direction keeps your sympathy alive. As Tara, who runs the Buddhist centre, Yasmine Akram does well to bring some sense of reality to a character who’s basically only there to propel Luke’s story. Anderson, meanwhile, stops Luke from simply being an irredeemably sanctimonious git.
But for every good joke that lands, others falter. The play throws a lot of mud at the wall and, maybe because of the lack of the kind of quick scene change you’d get on TV, not all of it sticks. The writing is never quite as consistently funny as you want it to be.
The play’s best asset is also what ultimately knocks it off kilter. As Tony, dripping with cynicism, outrage and money-grabbing neediness, Deacon is irresistibly awful. He’s magnetically funny and dominates the stage. But Bain never lets the wise-cracking drop for long enough to sharpen the play’s darker edges.