The Independent (London)
15 May 1995, Monday
A happy accident
Orange Tree, Richmond
By Paul Taylor
Put yourself in this man's pointedly old-fashioned carpet slippers. After
killing his wife and crippling his daughter in a car crash, the character
has severed all links with his old life in Barnes and set up house with the
daughter in what used to be the family holiday cottage in Wales. Debbie has
found Jesus and maintains that she is grateful for her maiming; Harold,
still churning out humorous columns for a newspaper, has found a determined
but precarious mental equilibrium in devoting himself to her welfare.
Then, just as he's settling down one evening (headphones on; tumbler of malt
whisky to hand; the picture of cut-off, guarded tranquillity) in, looking
like a tramp, walks a figure from the past. "I've come to disturb your
peace," Hannah announces, a mission for which she is extremely well-placed.
She too has suffered family tragedy. Her father (a friend of Harold's) and
her mother (his all-but mistress) were killed in an air crash, whereupon
Hannah went missing for a year in India. At once decidedly shaky and
unnervingly resolute, she has come to demand that Harold give her a home.
You could quibble that the emotional stakes in James Saunders' Retreat are
artificially raised by the uncommon number of traffic casualties. "We
haven't been a very lucky pair of families, have we?" remarks Hannah, which
is putting it mildly. You could also note that Saunders is here reworking
material already broached in his earlier hit Bodies (1977). But the main
thing that needs to be said is that, in Sam Walters' beautifully judged
production, these 100 or so minutes of whisky-loosened talk offer as richly
satisfying a dramatic experience as you'll find at present anywhere in
On only her second professional engagement, Victoria Hamilton as Hannah
gives notice of a major talent. Her dark eyes, disquietingly direct in their
gaze, follow Harold everywhere with an expression that is a mix of the
hungrily adoring and the beadily monitoring. Passing over a fragile ornament
with the detached, experimental manner of a cat prodding a butterfly to see
it twitch, or wolfing down her supper with the speedy stealth of a
scavenger, Hamilton convinces you that here is a girl who has been driven to
the edge. She makes you feel, too, that, in her relentless probing of
Harold, Hannah is the girl who can remake or break him.
Tim Piggott-Smith is also very fine, by turns defensively waggish and
avuncular, aggressively protective of his sad little status quo, and
disarmingly expansive about the nihilism in his temperament which caused the
crash and which now buttresses him in his belief that, though we can talk of
things going to the bad, it makes no sense to speak of right and wrong.
From the perspective of his quietly devastating climactic revelation, the
understated tremors of sexual possibility that have rippled through the
atmosphere take on a poignantly ironic aspect. If the ending hints that what
we have seen has all been in Harold's mind, then you can only conclude that
he is wasting himself on those humorous columns.
(Submitted by Tara)