Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape

Peter Arnott
Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
Pitlochry Festival Theatre

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John Michie (Rennie) Credit: Fraser Band
Benny Young (Moon), Robbie Scott (Will) & John Michie (Rennie) Credit: Fraser Band
The cast of Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape Credit: Fraser Band
Benny Young (Moon), Patricia Panther (Kath) and John Michie (Rennie) Credit: Fraser Band
John Michie (Rennie) & Matthew Trevannion (Charlie) Credit: Fraser Band
John Michie (Rennie) & Nalini Chetty (Jitka) Credit: Fraser Band

This première production of a new Peter Arnott play brings nine actors to the Pitlochry stage—and later to the Lyceum in Edinburgh—under the direction of David Greig, led by Taggart star John Michie as retired academic Rennie, who has gathered together family and former star students somewhere in the Scottish Highlands for a mysterious big announcement.

Rennie is the kind of older male academic often portrayed in fiction: arrogantly certain of his own opinions, but enjoys provoking others into discussions that he is sure he can win. He is estranged from his wife, Edie (Deirdre Davis), though they still live together, since the death of their son, Will, who still haunts them, appearing physically in the form of Robbie Scott as perhaps a ghost or memory as well as later in a flashback (usually accompanied by Nirvana on the soundtrack as well as on his tee-shirt).

Their daughter Emma (Sally Reid) disappointed him by dropping out of Cambridge before her finals some years ago. Her ex, and Rennie’s ex-student, Charlie (Matthew Trevannion) arrives with his Czech girlfriend Jitka (Nalina Chetty); he has made his name through making TV programmes with a strong right-wing message that there will soon be a climate-change apocalypse that only the strongest—in other words the richest—will survive, and that this will be a good thing for humanity.

Completing this company are his rather less confident ex-student Frank (Keith Macpherson), who vainly hoped for Rennie’s recommendation for a professorship, and Frank’s pregnant fiancée Kath (Patricia Panther), a schoolteacher, plus old friend Moon (Benny Young), an actor, whom Rennie has invited to speak to his wife, as he no longer can.

The timing is significant as it is 2014, just before the Scottish Independence referendum, and Rennie, a longtime Labour supporter until Blair sent bombs to Iraq, is intending, “if I live long enough”, to vote ‘yes’, whereas Moon thinks this would be madness. In the old days, their political discussions would be the Leninist against the Trotskyist.

While there are some discussions about Scottish Independence and liberal politics and the ‘old left’, writer Arnott describes it as ‘Scottish Chekhov’, as it is “basically a comedy about attractive, witty people looking into the face of the end of everything that they are, personally and as a group coming to an end… and then looking away again as rapidly as possible.” That’s certainly true of Chekhov in hindsight, although he himself didn’t live long enough to see the Russian Revolution or its aftermath, but we will have to wait a few decades to see how prescient this play was.

But Arnott has assembled an interesting collection of characters to clash over these issues, even if the debates don’t go into a great deal of depth and leave lots of loose ends, and they are all very well cast in Greig’s tight but imaginative production with a sparse design by Jessica Worrall, an impressively complex sound design by Pippa Murphy and lighting to match by Simon Wilkinson.

While there could be more substance to the discussions, bearing in mind the history and qualifications of the characters, and the ambiguous ending isn’t entirely satisfying, there is more than enough to keep the attention for a couple of hours with witty, intelligent dialogue, a few things to make you think and difficulties in families that most people can relate to. Certainly worth catching here in Pitlochry or later in Edinburgh.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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