Pain is certain, suffering is optional: The Retreat at Park Theatre

Saturday 4th November 2017, matinée

The problem with running away from your problems is that you can never escape from yourself.  In ‘The Retreat’, author Sam Bain has recognised a perfect opportunity for comedy and drama by writing a play whose central character, Luke, is on a Buddhist retreat in the wilds of Scotland.  His first problem?  He hasn’t yet realised that Buddhism is not a competitive sport.  His second?   This arrives in the form of his brother Tony, two months into the retreat, who arrives on the pretext of having some ‘big news’ and then proceeds to recreate the life Luke has been trying to get away from.  The big question of the play is cleverly posed and never fully answered – is Tony just dragging down his younger, brighter brother as usual, or is he saving him from the worst decision of his life (to become a Buddhist monk and give all his money to the cause) by testing his faith, just like the Buddhist masters used to do with their acolytes.

At ninety minutes the play is tightly structured and nothing is wasted – what the play lacks in running time it makes up for in drama and comedy-packed action.  At the centre is the struggle between the two brothers.  Bain’s dialogue is down-to-earth and provides a fascinating portrait of sibling rivalry.  He is not afraid to explore some dark and deep issues, but there is also plenty of hilarity.  The play is also physically very grounded.  The set is realistic, and the play begins with a good few minutes of Buddhist ceremony which leaves us in no doubt about Luke’s sincerity.  The comedy is organic, coming out of the conflict and humanity of the characters – there are no ‘gags’ as such or cheap laughs, and this discipline pays off.  We are laughing with the characters, not at them.

Samuel Anderson has a fantastic line in self-absorbed misery.  The moment he steps through the door and begins his ritual, we can see that this is not a mind at peace.  He exudes confidence and self-control, but pulls off that great feat of allowing us to glimpse the emptiness inside.  This could be an unlikeable character in less subtle hands, but Anderson allows us to feel his pain and be forgiving of his mistakes.

Adam Deacon is perfectly cast as the disruptive brother Tony.  He overflows with energy, and delivers an incredible motormouth performance, but there is a rhythm to his dialogue which always finds the right comic timing.  He does have some of the funniest lines in the play (mostly debunking his brother), but he never wastes an opportunity for a laugh. Although billed as the ‘obnoxious’ brother, he conveys a genuine sense of compassion for his younger brother, painfully aware that he has ‘failed’ in life by most conventional measures, yet still manages to be more content than his perfectionist sibling.

Yasmine Akram as Tara does a great job in keeping us guessing about the motives of her character.  As the manager of the centre, and probably the sanest person in the play, she has a lot of fun with the stereotype of the spiritual hippy, airy and eccentric, but ultimately all too human when it comes to financial good sense (or lack of it).  Is she ruthlessly manipulating Luke for his money, or just an opportunist?  Either way, Akram has a warmth and genuineness about her that gives the play a generous dose of hope and humanity.

This is Sam Bain’s first play and we hope it won’t be his last – his style perfectly matches the intimacy of the Park Theatre, and its ethos of bringing us bold and unusual drama.  He couldn’t have hoped for a better venue for his debut, with an excellent rendition by Designer Paul Wills and Director Kathy Burke.

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