Park Theatre, London – until 2 December 2017
Humour is a funny old thing. What seems hilarious to one can leave another entirely stony-faced. With Kathy Burke’s imprimatur attached as director, my expectations were high for Sam Bain’s The Retreat although everything else about the writer was unknown to me.
I like to let a new play spring on me with all its freshness although I had noted Bain was a multi-award winning tv comedy writer for shows like Peep Show, Fresh Meat, Babylon and the film, Four Lions written with the master comic anarchist, Chris Morris.
The Retreat, Bain’s first stage play, is however a strange hybrid. To these eyes, it seemed a comedy trying also to say something interesting about modern day lifestyles in terms of happiness, fulfilment and spiritual nourishment versus materialism.
© Craig Sugden, foreground, Samuel Anderson’s Luke in the doldrums, background Adam Deacon’s Tony bursting the illusion and Yasmine Akram as Tara caught on the horns of some truths…
Lurking at the back there, too, are some nice digs at the hypocrisy of those who search for peace and contentment through alternative avenues and belief systems whilst all the time, the elephant in the room is money, mammon. You can’t escape it.
But such enquiries as there are devolved into the character of young Luke, a City high-flyer who’s dropped out and decided on a Buddhist way to contentment at a retreat in the Scottish Highlands, is heavily overlaid by one relentless tv type gag after another.
The unfortunate receptacle of this humour is mostly carried by Luke’s older brother, Tony – the under-achieving `bad boy’ apparently to Luke’s over-indulged `golden boy’ status in the family.
Tony is everything Luke is not – motor-mouthed, crotch-obsessed with a particularly splenetic street turn of phrase. In other words your typical beer-crisps-and-a-shag type (and Deliveroo delivery rider) with more than a passing taste for the recreational drug de nos jours, coke.
That taste has landed him in all sorts of trouble which is why he happens to be dropping in on Luke.
© Craig Sugden, foreground: Samuel Anderson as Luke, background left, Adam Deacon as Tony and right Yasmine Akram as Tara trying to build a path to enlightenment with a little help from Luke’s past earnings…
There are two streams of banter going on here – the relentless gag-a-minute of Tony and Luke and enter Tara, another soul on the journey to bliss-out which is where the financial cross-currents and tensions really begin to surface.
Bain has clearly done enough research to know his mantras from his visualisations and there’s a certain amount of care taken in Burke’s production to give due credence to Buddhism, its rituals and its worth.
Bain also takes care to balance the materialism of Tony shrewdly against Luke’s fluctuating infatuations. The debate is equally shared and absorbing enough if you can catch it all – which from certain parts of the small Park studio space, is not always possible.
© Adam Deacon, as Tony, the sceptical older brother, making up his own mantra…
But – and I suppose it’s an essential to comedy/satire – we’re also knee deep in stereotypes, with Adam Deacon’s Tony, a monster example of what passes for humour today – being the particular sufferer. You have to feel for him creating such an unsympathetic character.
Samuel Anderson, on the other hand, has the easier job and makes Luke appealing if hypocritical while Yasmine Akram brings just enough irony to her opportunistic searcher after universal enlightenment.
I have to report, though, that although it failed to stir much laughter from this spectator, most of the audience seemed to be having a rare old time with Tony’s sometimes shockingly crude but typical attitudes to Luke’s attempt to find an alternative lifestyle choice.
Predictable. But if you like the jokes, you’ll love this.