Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape – Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Written by Peter Arnott

Directed by David Grieg

In the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, George Rennie, retired academic and political influencer, summons his family and closest friends for a party to see a new Scotland – irrespective of the outcome. And though politics is thought to be on the menu, it’s only a mouthful of a thought-provoking meal which Peter Arnott is serving up in a lamenting new productionA Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape, a co-production by the Pitlochry Festival Theatre and the Royal Lyceum Theatre of Edinburgh.

The spectrum of life is flourishing – politics has a seat at the table, but it doesn’t hold court. The pains of loss, grief, and the beginnings and endings of all things are in grand quantity here. A touch too reaching for a show that feels to have lost a bit of weight along the way – the teeth don’t sink in hard enough once the dust settles – leaving the impression that David Greig’s direction could have captured the crucial moments and turns with more gravitas, even a spot of blood to stain the otherwise gorgeously cleanly rich and concentrated palette and design from Jessica Worrall.

Amidst the cauldron of opinions and emotions, John Michie’s initially reserved and pitched performance is stunning. It’s a measured execution: one deservedly at the centre of the ensemble as elements collide and ricochet through revelations and desires to impress Rennie one final time. Glimmering moments of comedic magic spark off when going toe-to-toe with old friend Moon (Benny Young) brought to the house as the go-between Edie and Rennie, the long-married pair never able to fully recover from past (and present) trauma. Additionally, Michie’s moments with Sally Reid, playing daughter Emma who disappointed the family by dropping out of Cambridge, bring an authentic familial element without diluting the remainder of the text.

But there’s another in the room – Robbie Scott’s Will, a spectre of a robbed future and a shattered past. Lurking around the stage, often with a hand in the production’s impressive audio storytelling from Pippa Murphy, half-fulfilled conversations with his mother Edie (Deidre Davis) and erratic lighting which remove us temporarily from the rather swanky, but no longer comfortable, life of the middle-class about to tip over the edge. It’s a silent part (well, almost) that captures the production’s tone: an eternal limbo and perpetual instability of grand causes and sedentary actions.

A bleaker, even George Miller-esquevision of the future lives in the eyes of Charlie, George’s former student (along with Keith Macpherson’s Frank), who found a career as a television specialist/host. In the paradise-soaked hopes of others surrounding Charlie, Trevannion cuts through with a sardonic Cheshire glee and satisfaction in destabilising their arguments with a chilling account of the climate crisis fruition: the collapse of the environment, and the emergence of an archaic world in which the meek aren’t inheriting anything.

The generated tension inGroup Portrait in a Summer Landscapeisn’t combustive, or even discomforting, which sadly fizzles by the wrap-up which comes in the form of an unexpectedly emotively charged moment: unexpected, but appropriate. This is not a production which squares itself in any camp: Yes or No, Remain or Leave, Left or Right, but illustrates itself with bated breath; that sharp intake at the turning of a political chapter, and the desperation of release that never quite manifests. Humorous, innovative, and clever,Group Portrait in a Summer Landscapenavigates the stagnating world of a once comfortable class.

With an almost, maybe even too, etherealness clutching at the lingering mist on the Highland backdrop,Group Portrait in a Summer Landscapetries to grapple with political ideology and the familial trauma of the Rennies but doesn’t entirely secure either firm enough. Not as bold as initial ripples suggest, it finds itself devouring its own tale: one somewhat ahead of its time, and wholly a piece of the present.

Runs until 28 September 2023 and then opens in Edinburgh at the Royal Lyceum Theatre 4 October 2023. | Image: Fraser Band

A Thought-Provoking Meal

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