The Portrait Firm[author-post-rating] (3/5 Stars)

Space is integral to any performance, and in the case of work being programmed at the old veterinary college, Summerhall, a consideration of which space you’re inhabiting is paramount. The old demonstration and dissection rooms (now performance spaces) remain, and in corridors and rooms there’s signs of the previous veterinary education with instruments and skulls looming about you. Which is why it’s frustrating when the programming goes against the performance and against the venue, such as is the case with The Portrait Firm by Council of Handmade Crap. What was once a promenade performance has been shoe-horned into a lecture theatre, which the performers attempt to deal with by moving their performances across the seats and performance space. They struggle to ignite the space with their songs and visual images. The company can’t be blamed, but it’s a real shame that Summerhall has let down this creative and young company.

Using a combination of chorus-based song, grotesque characters, actions and visual images, The Portrait Firm creates a world that is inhabited by the manic and undead, the pained artist and his lustful lover. It’s all a little bemusing, but hidden beneath the uncertainty of this work are a series of devices and rhythms that play out with determined strength. The ensemble, students from Rose Bruford’s European Theatre Arts course (returning to the Edinburgh Fringe), use song and disturbed characters to paint the world in which The Portrait Firm – a look at Polish painter Stanislaw Witkiewicz – is based. It’s meant to be ghastly and haunting, but in the lecture theatre of Summerhall the desired affect is rendered frustrating as we twist in our fixed seat trying to follow the characters and action.

There’s plenty right with this piece of work, which demonstrates a certain level of dramatical skill in exploring European methodologies, but there is also, sadly, much wrong with the work too. There’s an urgent need for silence. Amongst the cacophony of voices and characters, at no point are the audience given a moment’s rest. Instead we hear a multitude of noise, losing all sense of subtly in the piece. There’s also a certain desire for the work to be pushed further and the need to have a developed narrative to follow; at present the audience grapples in the dark.

For a first piece from a company it is as to be expected: full of promise and full of mistakes, but where better to learn that than at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival? It’s just a shame that the company is off to a troubled start with its space at Summerhall.

The Portrait Firm is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 24 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.