Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape. Credit_ Fraser Brand

Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape

Reviewer's Rating

Peter Arnott’s Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape seeks to tackle some very big themes indeed: politics, God, human nature, ageing, death itself. Arnott has described the play as ‘Scottish Chekov’, while the script contains knowing nods to writers such as Alan Bennett and Leo Tolstoy. Aiming for such lofty heights, it is perhaps not surprising that it never quite reaches them.

The play is set in the heart of middle class, liberal luxury, a summer house in the Perthshire hills, effectively conjured through both writing and set. There, the once-brilliant academic and writer George Rennie brings together family and friends for a final dramatic announcement, leading to the usual recriminations and reckonings. The cast is much as might be expected in such a situation: the neglected daughter, the grieving wife, ex-proteges butting heads and nursing unrequited love, a new flame and an old friend.

Alongside the living, the house and stage are physically haunted by the ghost of Rennie’s son Will (Robbie Scott), dead for 20 years. It seems a somewhat literal way of illustrating how the grief of losing a loved one – and a child in particular – never really goes away. Occasionally it works to moving effect, but mostly it feels too on the nose to have real impact. The use of music cues (Nirvana to evoke the 1990s, John Coltrane for smug, cosy liberalness) is equally pointed and heavy handed.

Likewise, the supposedly deep conversations on the many weighty subjects tossed around come across as shallow and uninformed for these supposedly brilliant academics and TV presenters. The play possibly suffers from trying to cover too much ground, ranging from personal grief and Scottish Independence to bleak predictions for the future of the human race and everything in between. The idea, presumably, is to draw parallels between these disparate subjects, to help them shed light on each other. The unfortunate result is a scattergun of under-developed ideas and arguments, occasionally punctuated by somewhat laboured metaphors.

There are at least some genuinely funny lines in amongst the studenty debates, with witty asides and withering putdowns at the expense of the bourgeois class bringing a healthy dose of humour throughout. The presence of Will, the dead son, does lead to some genuinely touching moments, as does the mourning by the older characters of opportunities missed and lives reaching their inevitable end.

John Michie as Rennie is a dominant and compelling presence, entirely believable as the charismatic academic. Benny Young is clearly enjoying himself as grandee actor Jimmy Moon, channelling a heady mix of Ian McKellan and Bill Nighy and bringing some genuine pathos. Matthew Trevannion’s Charlie is a boorish pig, no less smug than the cossetted liberals he professes to despise, but he is one of the few characters to compellingly fill the stage and auditorium.

At one point, outsider Jitka (a likable and relatable Nalini Chetty) exclaims that she’s surrounded by ‘rich people who drink too much and hate everything’, a perhaps unintentionally apt description of experiencing Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape as a whole. It is at its strongest when exploring grief and loss, and functions effectively as a takedown of the smug middle classes, fiddling while the world burns. However, it offers little by way of positive alternative, and lacks the depth and nuance to truly illuminate.