Saturday, June 15

Group Portrait In A Summer Landscape – Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

It is a brave playwright who describes his play as “Scottish Chekhov”, but Peter Arnott’s magnificent new play does not disappoint. It’s an exhilarating tour-de-force which deals with huge issues while zooming in on the complex human relationships of a group of privileged and talented people.

It’s hugely entertaining, thought-provoking, and witty, but not always an easy watch. The first night audience was often shrieking with laughter, but sometimes stunned into shocked silence.

It’s set in the summer of 2014 in the heady days leading up to the Scottish Independence Referendum. But although that’s discussed, it’s not a play about Independence. Nor is it about the climate emergency, although that issue features, too. And it’s not really about God though the Deity is important to some of the characters.

But the play is about human beings, their strengths and frailties, and the potential fragility of all relationships. What happens when a group of people are brought together, some of whom haven’t met in years but at one time were very close? What happens if people are brutally honest, perhaps for the first time? How many of us have secrets which, if known to others, would totally change their perceptions of us?

In the first half of the play we meet all the characters as they arrive at the country house owned by Professor Rennie and his wife, Edie. Rennie has invited relatives, friends and colleagues to visit. None of them knows the purpose of the meeting.

The second half is more sombre. It starts towards the end of a very boozy dinner party. A drunken Rennie makes his announcement. It is not well received. The rest of the play is taken up with the consequences of that bombshell announcement. And ends on the edge of a cliff…literally.

A stellar cast is led by John Michie, playing George Rennie, the distinguished historian and poet. This is ensemble acting at its very best. The nine characters created by the playwright are convincingly brought to life.

Deirdre Davis plays Edie, a former actor and Rennie’s wife. She spends most of her time in Perthshire while Rennie is usually in their Glasgow house.

Sally Reid plays Emma, Rennie’s and Edie’s daughter. She dropped out of Cambridge just before her finals, on the verge of achieving a First-Class degree. She’s now an art dealer,

Benny Young is Jimmy Moon, an actor and longtime friend of Rennie, and very close to Edie. In their youth Jimmy was a Leninist, Rennie a Trotskyite. Later they gravitated to the Labour Party. Now they are on opposite sides of the Independence debate.

Matthew Trevannion is Charlie, a brilliant documentary film maker, a climate emergency expert. He thinks the world as we know it is doomed. Charlie is Rennie’s former student, and Emma’s ex.

Nalini Chetty is Jitka, a teacher studying for a doctorate in Geology. She’s from the Czech Republic. and is Charlie’s girlfriend and television collaborator.

Keith Macpherson plays Frank, Rennie’s former student and now colleague. Not as brilliant as Charlie or Rennie, he wants the latter to recommend him for a Professorship, even though he now hates his work. And, although he’s engaged to someone else, he still carries a torch for Emma.

Patricia Panther plays Kath, another teacher, an SNP activist and Frank’s fiancé. Kath is pregnant.

And Robbie Scott is Will, Rennie’s son. He died a long time ago, but we see him in flashbacks, and – more frequently – as a ghost. His death has greatly affected both parents. Rennie wrote a book about him, and then felt he had nothing else to write. And Edie grieves for him every day, and still can’t let go of him. Scott’s movement in the ghost scenes is riveting.

David Greig directs with panache. The modern, rather clinical set greeting us as we enter the auditorium soon opens out to reveal a fabulous background of the Perthshire mountains. Plaudits to Set and Costume Designer Jessica Worrall. Composer and Sound Designer Pippa Murphy provides us with wonderful music. And her convincing sound effects are complemented by atmospheric lighting from Lighting Designer Simon Wilkinson. Their special effects in the ghost scenes are electrifying. And Robin Hellier is the fight director for a violent altercation between two of the men which ends with a ‘Glasgow kiss’.

The play comes to Edinburgh after a run at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre and is a co-production between the Lyceum and the Perthshire theatre. It runs until 14th October. Thoroughly recommended.

Reviewer: Tom Scott

Reviewed: 4th October

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.