Park Theatre, 30th November 2017
So here is another offering from the Park which, whilst offering a very entertaining night out, didn’t quite deliver a whole commensurate with the sum of its parts. And very fine parts they were too. Sam Bain, with writing partner Jesse Armstrong, is the comic mind behind Peep Show, Fresh Meat and Babylon and the inexplicably “only a pilot, never commissioned” Bad Sugar, which was co-conceived with Julia Davis, Sharon Horgan and Olivia Colman. I’ll say that again for anyone whose job it is to get this stuff on the telly and who is reading this. Bad Sugar is a very funny comedy with three of our greatest comic actresses which has not been turned into a series. Why?
Mr Bain was also involved in Chris Morris’s Four Lions. So we know he can write comedy. And Kathy Burke has a string of lauded directorial credits, (next up she will be taking on Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Vaudeville Theatre), to match her acting roles. She is also clearly a fabulous person. Designer Paul Wills has come up with a convincing set that reflects the details of the setting, a one roomed hut in the Scottish Highlands. And the cast, Samuel Anderson as sanctimonious, hypocrite Luke, Adam Deacon as boisterous, brother Tony and Yasmine Akram as Tara all put in spirited performances.
Luke is some sort of financial whizz-kid, (with very rare exceptions most playwrights have a very vague idea of how the world of finance works), who is burnt out and, having been pushed out of the firm he founded, and dumped by his wife, goes to find himself, and detox, in a Buddhist retreat. This is run by Tara, who begins as a green painted, wide eyed space cadet but gradually comes back to earth, (observe her Hunter wellies), as the reality of her financial predicament is revealed. In fairly short order Tony turns up. He lives with Luke in London, is estranged from partner and child, has a dead end delivery job, likes his drugs and relies on Luke to keep him afloat. He wants Luke back. Luke wants to sell the London flat and support the retreat. Tony is understandably dead set against this course of action. Cue some gentle prodding of the dichotomy between spiritualism and materialism and a very believable, and funny, account of fraternal interdependence.
For it is, in parts, very funny. Adam Deacon in particular, is gifted with a whole string of one liners as the foil to the more serious, uptight Samuel Anderson. The problem is these gags end up taking over much of the drama. The “Tony as an arse” joke tail ends up wagging the “modern life is unfulfilling” plot dog as it were. Which is a bit of a shame because the ideas that sit behind the play are actually quite interesting and it does manage to seriously engage with Buddhist ideas, whilst satirising the narcissism that underpins the contemporary quest for “mindfulness”. Sam Bain’s day job as a sit-com writer is clearly visible in The Retreat, for both good and bad. I also felt that Yasmine Akram’s Tara was a little underwritten, which left her having to rely too much on arch expressions and eye rolling astonishment to react to the male characters and to reveal her true motives.
Still, if you just relax and stop playing the amateur theatre critic, there was much to enjoy here. I am not sure there was much that Kathy Burke could do to divert the one-liner torrent even if she had wanted to. The SO, BUD and KCK all came along and, once again, we all agreed that the evening was a success and that the Park continues to exude a special, friendly atmosphere. So relax, don’t moan, don’t expect too much, live in the moment and stop fretting about what might have been.