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The Guardian (London)
17 May 1995

RETREAT

ORANGE TREE, RICHMOND

By Michael Billington

LAST TIME we saw a play in which a middle-aged male journalist was left
alone with a young girl the result was the cosmic mayhem of Sarah Kane's
Blasted. But, though it shares a similar situation, James Saunders's
Retreat, at the Orange Tree, Richmond, is an infinitely subtler, richer play
about the nature of moral responsibility. An Inspector Calls, a friend
muttered. I thought more of Albee's A Delicate Balance, in which a couple,
fleeing from some nameless terror, sought sanctuary with their oldest
friends.

But Saunders's play sets up its own unique reverberations. We are in a Welsh
cottage late at night. Harold, its owner, is listening to Mozart and
drinking scotch, when the doorbell insistently rings. The visitor is
Hannah, the hitch-hiking daughter of his oldest friends who were killed in a
Pakistani air-crash. "I've come to disturb your peace," she claims and she's
not joking. Harold, whose wife died in a car accident and who now devotes
himself to his disabled daughter, has created a rural retreat whose calm is
violated by this importunate visitor who clearly intends to stay for rather
more than dinner.

Saunders sets up a calculatedly artificial situation - and just how
artificial we only discover through a last-minute theatrical surprise - to
explore the debt we owe to others and ourselves. Harold has sold his house
in Barnes, shed all his past possessions - somewhat improbably for a
newspaper columnist - and created a new life based on paternal care.

But the basic question Saunders asks is whether cocooned happiness is ever a
possibility and whether we can resist the clamorous demands - embodied by
the importunate Hannah - of the outside world. As in his 1977 play, Bodies,
Saunders implies it is better to accept your own neuroses and the world's
imperfections than to struggle to achieve a sterile contentment.

Host and guest, occupant and intruder: it is a classic situation, much used
by Pinter and Albee and here given a philosophical spin by Saunders to make
us side, at different times, with both parties. We feel for Hannah in her
need to give and receive protection: we understand Harold in his anxiety to
divest himself of religious guilt and unwanted commitments. The situation's
sexual tension is a bit slow to surface but otherwise this a nail-biting 100
minutes in which director Sam Walters gets two brilliant performances from
his actors. Tim Pigott-Smith has the simmering anger of a man plagued by
unacknowledged demons of desire and Victoria Hamilton turns brooding,
watchful stillness into a moral demand.

(Submitted by Tara)