I cannot pretend to be a theatre critic as much as I have no claim to be overly knowledgeable about the life and works of Ivor Cutler, my limited insight into whom comes from some John Peel listening, Beatles reading and various friends talking and performing. But, I know how I felt when I left the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh a few days ago, having just seen The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler – totally charmed, thoroughly elated, and more than a little emotional.
Ivor Cutler was a Glasgow-born poet, a surrealist song-maker, an atheist, humorist and humanist. To call him an eccentric really wouldn’t do. Billy Connolly once said the world needed Ivor Cutler “in order to think differently”. Indeed. He also said that, like the West of Scotland rain, which seeps into your very being, nobody encapsulated the word “dreich” like Cutler. Hmm… I’m not so sure. Dreich, dreary or miserable may describe Cutler’s colourless facial demeanour, but his work most definitely radiates like a rainbow.
The show drifts between Sandy Grierson’s introductory meeting with Cutler’s partner and soulmate, Phyllis King (played with perfect restraint by Elicia Daly), proposing the idea of a play and seeking “to find out about the day-to-day Mr Cutler”, into her memories of their life together, acted out by both as her initial apprehension disappears, by way of song, poetry and prose. All is set against a wonderfully visual and phonic backdrop that leave the senses beautifully touched. The performance from Sandy Grierson was stunning – he was also behind the play’s script – and watching him submerge into Ivor Cutler following his initial nervous approach to Phyllis King was all too often the focus of my gaze; constantly averting my eyes and ears from everything else that was happening around.
Other well know friends and admirers of Cutler were Paul McCartney and djs John Peel and Andy Kershaw, all of whom and many more feature throughout the show through the performance of musician/actor Ed Gaughan, whose impersonations and caricatures of characters touching Cutler’s life were a constant highlight. His work, alongside the five-piece band of multi-talented players and funsters brought Cutler’s work to life. Adding to the authenticity of the sound was Grierson’s use of a musical curio placed front of stage, a Cutler-owned harmonium found at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow. This instrument, along with the luscious bounty of strings, keys and percussion, all under the guidance of musical director Jim Fortune, flowed bent and twisted, never better than during ‘Loch Lomond’, performed brilliantly by all five with the audible gaps due to the family piano’s missing key.
The show focused on Cutler’s work, but also gave an insight into not just his childhood and career as a RAF navigator and forward-thinking teacher, but also deep into his persona and latter years dementia. The show’s musical effervescence shone as a stark contradiction to Cutler’s disposition, and Grierson’s portrayal of a mentally and physically weakening Cutler, along with a perfect script, exceptional performances and production made for a beautifully touching and heartrending finale.
Photography by Andrew McKenna