A funny but faltering first play from Peep Show's Sam Bain - The Retreat, Park Theatre, review

Samuel Anderson (Luke) and Adam Deacon (Tony) in Sam Bain's first stage play - CRAIG SUGDEN
Samuel Anderson (Luke) and Adam Deacon (Tony) in Sam Bain's first stage play - CRAIG SUGDEN

Mindfulness: if you’re not worrying about it, you should be; if you are, you should probably be worrying about it more. And zeitgeisty dramatists should, without question, be writing stories about it, as Sam Bain does in his new play The Retreat.

Few writers can claim to be as zeitgeisty as Bain, who co-wrote nine series of the multi-award-winning TV series Peep Show. This focused on two university graduates, Mark and Jeremy (played by David Mitchell and Robert Webb), as they tried to make sense of life, sex and, well, sex, in the post-millennial world.

The Retreat, directed by Kathy Burke, is Bain’s first attempt at a stage play. He’s already proved himself the laureate of hapless selfishness and knows just how to keep the cynical jokes coming in inexorable waves unto the shore. 

The Retreat - Credit: Craig Sugden
Luke (Samuel Anderson)'s work-related exhaustion leads him to a supposedly peaceful Buddhist sanctuary in Scotland Credit: Craig Sugden

All of that sardonic talent is on show here, as he tells the story of Luke (Samuel Anderson), a burnt-out city boy who escapes to a Buddhist sanctuary in Scotland run by an Irish girl Tara (Yasmine Akram) – only to be tracked down by his waster brother Tony (Adam Deacon).

For the most part, it’s a parade of set up, joke, set up, joke, in the great British sit-com tradition of Fawlty Towers, Rising Damp, Porridge and Blackadder, with Luke playing the straight-guy to Tony’s disruptive anarchist (“We need each other,” “I kneed him in the balls once”, and so forth). Luke is running from his shallow job; Tony wants his wonga; so does Tara.

The Retreat - Credit: Craig Sugden
Tony Deacon, Yasmine Akram and Samuel Anderson Credit: Craig Sugden

As you’d expect, the quality of the jokes is good, and were this a half-hour episode of a TV series that would be enough. But given that this is a standalone 90-minute play, Bain feels the pressure to give a bit more meaning – and this is where the writing begins to feel strained. One minute, we’re asked to pity Luke for feeling suicidal because of the strains of the city; the next there’s a laddish joke about a porn mag and getting a leg over the Irish babe. 

Great comedy and tragedy manage to switch between these two registers with ease. This does not. Why? Bain is not yet master of the theatre form, but it’s also a question of casting. Great comedy requires great comedy actors. Bain has one in Deacon, but the other two aren’t in the same ball park. A reminder that serious comedy’s not just about the joke, but that way that you tell it.

Until Dec 2. Tickets: 020 7870 6876; parktheatre.co.uk

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