THE BEAUTIFUL COSMOS OF IVOR CUTLER
CITIZENS THEATRE, GLASGOW
There can be few more enigmatic subjects for a work of musical theatre than Ivor Cutler. The Scottish Jewish humorist, poet and songwriter – who lived most of his life in London and died in 2006 – was a master of the hilariously surreal and the childishly bizarre. His work was appreciated by The Beatles (in whose film Magical Mystery Tour he performed in 1967) and iconic BBC Radio One DJ John Peel.
An anarchistic humanist and a playful rule breaker, Cutler’s life and work defy the normal rules of artistic categorisation. Praise is due, therefore, to co-producers the National Theatre of Scotland and Vanishing Point theatre company for embarking upon the unlikely project that is The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler.
The show flits between: actor/writer Sandy Grierson’s meetings with Cutler’s widow and artistic collaborator, Phyllis King (who is played with a lovely, unfussy sensitivity by Elicia Daly); reimagined moments from the poet’s biography; readings from his poetry and prose; and reinterpretations of his songs (by the show’s musical director James Fortune).
Normally, such eclecticism would be perceived as an aesthetic weakness. With Cutler, however, it is an absolute requirement; how else could one begin to reflect the diverse output of a man whose art included recording an extremely humorous, mock-zoological description (“this is an animal, it has four legs, one at each corner…”) and playing it to unsuspecting visitors at London Zoo?
Director Matthew Lenton’s production is blessed with excellent performances. Grierson plays Cutler with tremendous skill, affection and honesty; whether re-enacting moments from the poet’s richly varied life or performing his deceptively simple songs on a harmonium. Musician/actor Ed Gaughan brings a muscular comedy to the show in a series of delightfully outlandish caricatures, ranging from a crazy, strap-wielding Glaswegian teacher to a swaggering, Cockney stage producer.
As the piece wends its way towards the atheist poet’s beautifully imagined afterlife, its palpably handspun aspect is remarkably evocative of Cutler’s own artistic methods. Even Fortune’s consistently wonderful musical arrangements – which sometimes turn Cutler’s solo pieces into splendid band numbers – remain faithful to their musical influences (whether they be Caribbean calypso or Ashkenazi Jewish klezmer).
Funny, evocative, celebratory and deceptively designed (as if for a straightforward music gig) by Kai Fischer, the show succeeds brilliantly in opening a window onto the undeniably beautiful cosmos of Ivor Cutler.
Touring Scotland until May 3. For tour details, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 14, 2014
© Mark Brown