When the Glasgow-born poet, playwright, song-writer, musician, cartoonist, humorist and story-writer Ivor Cutler died in March 2006, the nation’s obituarists remembered an “unassuming master of offbeat humour”, and “one of the great British eccentrics”, the “unlikeliest of cult heroes” whose child-like “wonder at the world” attracted generations of admirers from Bertrand Russell and Paul McCartney to the DJ John Peel and discoverer of Oasis, Alan McGee.
Grierson’s performance as Mr Cutler is undoubtedly the linchpin of this new work.
So, it’s only to be expected that any theatrical work inspired by Mr Cutler’s life and work is unlikely to be like “Mama Mia”. Indeed, this new production from writer/director Matthew Lenton and his team at Glasgow-based Vanishing Point is delightfully self-conscious of itself as a work of theatre; not least the decision to frame the whole piece within recreations of interviews between the actor Sandy Grierson, researching the role he will play, and Mr Cutler’s long-term partner and stage-collaborator, the poet and artist Phyllis King.
Grierson’s performance as Mr Cutler is undoubtedly the linchpin of this new work. Despite physically being much taller and leaner than the man who once shared the bill with the Jesus & Mary Chain and Sonic Youth, Grierson morphs into Mr Cutler’s person with startling ease, although he has great support too from the five-piece band and also Elicia Daly who, for most of the time, provides an “alternative”narrative voice as Phyllis King.
In structure the show is a simple enough chronological retelling of Mr Cutler’s life, illustrated by some of his most famous songs and poems. Anyone with some knowledge of the man will be aware of the necessary simplifications the Vanishing Point team have necessarily made–not least when it comes to truncating the 30-odd years he spent as a teacher, or the man’s extensive back catalogue of album recordings.
But this isn’t intended to be a straight-forward documentary. We see sound-effects being recreated on stage by the cast, while many of the “characters”with which he interacts have a tendency to be aware of their primary narrative functions; and, of course, at one point, the audience is left staring at a darkened stage, listening just to the voices–apt enough for a man who’s initial fame came from “appearing”on BBC Radio.
On occasions as disconcertingly dreamy and unpredictable as the man himself, this musical play necessarily takes a more serious turn in its second half, playing on our expectations of how the show ‘works’in order to deliver an emotional sucker punch connected with Mr Cutler’s gradual slide into dementia. Overall, however, The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler is a charming, quirky and delightful celebration of a man whose determination to be his own man remains a lesson to us all.